Foreign tourists wearing face masks visit the Taj Mahal under heavy smog conditions, in Agra, India, on Monday. AFP
The "odd-even" scheme will restrict private vehicles with odd-number licence plates to driving on odd dates while even-numbered plates are allowed on even-numbered dates. It was begun days after authorities began emergency control measures and ordered the closure of schools as pollution levels reached a three-year high
The state-run Central Pollution Control Board's air quality index for New Delhi was "severe" at 436, about nine times the recommended maximum.
People make their way on a street in smoggy conditions in New Delhi. AFP
The US embassy air quality index, which measures the concentration of tiny PM 2.5 particles, exceeded 500, indicating serious aggravation of heart and lung disease, and premature mortality in people with existing diseases and the elderly.
Pollution at this level also means serious risk of effects on the respiratory systems of the general population.
On Monday, drivers with even-numbered licence plates were the lucky ones. Morning traffic was thin and drivers appeared to be obeying the rule — a Reuters reporter saw no vehicles with odd-numbered license plates on the streets.
"It' a huge inconvenience because I'm not going to make it on time for my meetings," said Sagar Bajaj, 29, struggling to find a taxi in central Delhi's busy Connaught Place.
Bajaj said he normally drives to work but his car's licence plate ends in and odd number.
Air pollution in New Delhi and northern Indian states peaks in the winter as farmers in neighbouring agricultural regions set fire to clear land after the harvest and prepare for the next crop season. The pollution in the Indian capital also peaks after Diwali celebrations, the Hindu festival of light, when people set off fireworks.
As smog levels exceeded those of Beijing by more than three times, authorities also parked a van with an air purifier near the Taj Mahal — the iconic 17th-century marble mausoleum 250 kilometres south of Delhi — in a bid to clean the air in its surrounds.
More than 600 police teams were deployed at road intersections in the capital with the power to hand out fines of Rs4,000 (nearly $60) to transgressors.
Exempt from the restrictions were Delhi's seven million motorbikes and scooters, public transport and cars carrying only women, stoking criticism that the measures were ineffective.
"There is smoke everywhere and people, including youngsters, kids, elderly are finding it difficult to breathe," Delhi's chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said in a Twitter video. "Eyes are burning. Pollution is that bad."
Some people distraught over the pollution said they wanted to leave the city of more than 20 million people due to its poor air quality.
"I feel like moving out as well because I'm young and I'm still on a stage of building up my life and my career," resident Divyam Mathur said.
Traffic police officers, wearing protective masks, signaled cars to stop for not following the vehicle restrictions on Monday. New Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal appealed for residents to follow the rule and for private taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers to support it.
Authorities said almost 1.2 million registered vehicles in New Delhi will be off the road every day during the two-week restrictions.
"I don't think this odd-even scheme will do anything. It's mostly the stubble burning in the states of Punjab and Haryana which contributes to the pollution, and industrial pollution is also high," said Ajay Jasra, a New Delhi resident.
The vehicle restrictions have been the Aam Aadmi Party-led city government's pet project to fight air pollution. It was implemented twice in 2016 but remained controversial as critics have debated its impact.
Vehicle and industrial emissions, pollutants from firecrackers, and construction dust sharply increase each winter, exacerbating what is already a public health crisis.
Last year, the New Delhi government ordered firefighters to sprinkle water from high-rise buildings to settle dust, stopped garbage fires and ordered builders to cover construction sites to stop dust enveloping the area as hazardous air quality affected millions of people.
World Health Organisation data released last year gave India the dubious distinction of having the world's 10 most polluted cities.Car rule 'a stunt'
But national environment minister Prakash Javadekar accused Kejriwal of politicising the issue, while an MP from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) violated the odd-even car rule as a "symbolic protest" by driving a car that was barred under the scheme.
Experts warned that both state and national governments needed to go beyond short-term remedies.
Stop-gap solutions "can't be a substitute for addressing the major long-term chronic sources of air pollution", Daniel Cass, from global non-profit Vital Strategies, told AFP.
Changing agricultural practices, switching electricity generation sources and accelerating the conversion of home heating from charcoal to natural gas were also key measures in the pollution fight, Cass said.
Siddharth Singh, a climate policy expert, said the traffic restrictions are "ineffective."
"If air pollution was solely due to the vehicular traffic, then this would be a solution. Right now it cannot be a solution because motorised private transport has a very small share in the whole pie," Singh told AFP.
The world cannot anymore take the issue of air pollution lightly. Indian capital, Delhi, which is facing an air pollution emergency, has sent a strong message to the rest of the world
The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) refused to change the venue due to logistical issues, although president Sourav Ganguly said they will "be more practical" in the future when scheduling matches in northern India.
As farm fires from New Delhi's neighbouring states sent swathes of smoke into the capital, the city's Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal ordered schools to be closed, the minister said in a tweet he posted in Hindi.
"I do not think any match should happen here in Delhi until the pollution level comes under control," said Gautam Gambhir, a former Indian Test cricketer and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's lawmaker in New Delhi.
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