NEW DELHI - The new year began with India's capital launching an ambitious initiative to curb the city’s record-breaking levels of air pollution by restricting the number of private cars on the road.
Beginning Friday, cars with odd-numbered license place will be allowed on New Delhi streets on odd-numbered days. Cars with even-numbered plates will be allowed on even numbered days.
The two-week trial ends January 15.
Drivers seemed to be following the rules Friday. In a city where roads are usually choked with cars, many citizens used public transport, autorickshaws and cabs, arranged car pools or simply stayed at home. Some young people cycled to their destinations.
Light holiday travel
However, skeptics said with schools and some offices closed because of the New Year's holiday, the capital has yet to get a real idea of how motorists will adhere to the restrictions.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal led by example, carpooling with his colleagues on the way to work. He said the city seems to have embraced the anti-pollution drive.
“I am truly overwhelmed by the response we have received so far," Kejriwal said.
Earlier, he had noted that the plan would only be successful if people "obey it from their heart."
Many citizens and schoolchildren were in the streets to support the initiative, and wore caps saying “I can't breathe” and urging people to cooperate.
A 2014 World Health Organization survey identified New Delhi as the world's most polluted city, partly because of the 9 million vehicles clogging the city's streets.
The fumes from those vehicles are a major contributor to the city’s dirty air. Particulate matter in the air, which can become embedded deep inside the lungs, is 10 times higher than the safety limit set by the World Health Organization.
With 1,400 new vehicles being added every day, the problem is only worsening.
Children are among the most affected by the polluted air. Doctors have noted an alarming increase in the number of young people with respiratory ailments.
They have also warned the general population is seeing a rise in diseases such as asthma, chronic bronchitis and lung cancer.
The alarming air pollution has also gotten the attention of the top court. Last month, the Supreme Court banned large diesel SUV’s in Delhi, and increased taxes on commercial vehicles.
However, many citizens were skeptical of the odd-even car plan, and questioned how a city with a poor public transport system will cope.
Authorities have increased the frequency of metro trains and added about 3,000 buses, but many critics said that is inadequate to meet the needs of a sprawling metropolis of nearly 20 million people.
They also grumble about the many exemptions during the trial period, including high-ranking officials, women drivers, and people using two-wheeled vehicles such as motorcycles.
Despite that skepticism, the first day appeared to have gone well, which makes Kejriwal optimistic.
“Delhi will show the way to the rest of the country," Delhi's chief minister said.
Environmental activists also were pleased, saying that in a country with 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, Delhi’s measure to restrict cars is an important first step in the right direction.