Workers Brace for 12-Hour Days as Delhi Battles Pollution

  • Delhi benches half of city's 2.8 million private vehicles
  • Pollution board asks neighboring states to check waste burning

For the next two weeks New Delhi resident Saurabh Sanyal will work for more than 12 hours every other day.

Sanyal isn’t alone. Manoj Sharma, chief executive of Mindpie, an event management company, is also doing the same. It’s not work pressure that’s prompting them to stay in office longer but the city administration’s plan, that started today, to bench half of the Indian capital’s 2.8 million private vehicles daily. Sanyal, who has an even-numbered car, will reach office before the measures take effect at 8 a.m. and leave after 8 p.m. when all vehicles will be allowed on the roads.

The measure by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is the most concerted effort by the government yet to reduce the number of exhaust-belching automobiles in the world’s most polluted metropolitan area as discontent among the city’s 16.8 million residents grows. New Delhi joins Beijing as capitals of the two most populous nations struggle to control runaway pollution brought on by decades of economic growth and lax environmental laws.

“These are emergency actions and we must support and make this work,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of research at advocacy group Centre for Science and Environment. “People will be forced out of their comfort zones and would have to think of options like carpooling or taking the public transport or reaching their destination before 8 a.m.”

The campaign was largely successful on its first day, with lean traffic reported across the city, Kejriwal told CNN-IBN television. At major intersections, volunteers handed out rosebuds to violators in a bid to coerce them and spread awareness. The success so far was also partly due to the new year holiday in many city offices.

"The fact that there are not many violators shows that people have accepted it," Kejriwal said. "There are no plans to extend this scheme beyond 15 days."

India’s Central Pollution Control Board has also asked three states adjoining Delhi to take measures to reduce pollution. The agency directed Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan on Tuesday to stop open-air burning of garbage, use of kerosene and coal for cooking and control dust pollution at construction sites.

Hazardous Levels

The city was the world’s most polluted measured by PM2.5 -- tiny, toxic particles that lead to respiratory diseases -- with an annual average of 153 micrograms per cubic meter, according to a 2014 World Health Organization database. A reading of 25 or lower is considered safe. The reading was at 207.3 micro grams per cubic meter, classified as very unhealthy, at 4 p.m. on Friday, compared with 376.9 micro grams per cubic meter at 9 a.m., according to the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.

was at 376.9 micro grams per cubic meter, classified as hazardous, at 9 a.m. on Friday, according to the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.

Delhi’s local government has been running advertisements in newspapers and billboards at city’s major intersections and tapping children in schools to sensitize them about the need for a cleaner environment. Volunteers assisted policemen at city’s main traffic intersections to spot violators, some of whom were fined 2,000 rupees ($30), NDTV 24x7 television showed.

To ease the citizens’ woes, the Delhi government increased the frequency of the services on metro rail and run additional buses, Transport Minister Gopal Rai said.

Car Pool

Ministers including Kejriwal and Rai will travel to their offices using the car pool, according to India Today TV. Tourism Minister Kapil Mishra rode a motorbike, exempt from the restriction, to work.

Sanyal, who is the secretary general of the PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a Delhi-based industry lobby, says government will need to do more to curb the pollution. “Other culprits like construction activities that are bigger contributors to Delhi’s pollution” needs to be checked, he said.

The Delhi government describes the odd-even restrictions on vehicles as an experiment that will run for 15 days to gauge its efficacy. For now, the move has been endorsed by India’s top court which banned registrations of diesel-engine vehicles of 2 liters or more last month. The curbs on vehicles will exclude motorcycles, scooters and essential services as well as women driving alone or with children.
 
“It isn’t a big deal of change to my schedule to put in long working hours,” said Sharma of Mindpie, who drives about 30 kilometers daily from Noida, a Delhi suburb. “If this continues for a longer period, then I will have look at an alternative.”

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