Streets, If Not The Air, Clear Out As Delhi Tests Car Restrictions

Streets, If Not The Air, Clear Out As Delhi Tests Car Restrictions

Thin traffic seen at ITO as the Odd-Even scheme restricting movement of private cars, is operational in New Delhi. (PTI Photo)

New Delhi:  Traffic was flowing smoothly Monday morning on Outer Ring Road in South Delhi, usually jammed at that hour by subway construction and cars. An upscale market was dotted with free parking spaces. Monkeys ambled down one street in the colonial heart of the capital, easily dodging the few cars.

It was the fourth day of traffic restrictions imposed by the government of the metropolitan Delhi region, part of a series of measures meant to reduce pollution. The two-week experiment, which began on Friday, has been derided in many quarters of Delhi, where having a car and driver is a status symbol, and rush hour is usually a clamor of horn blowing, triple parking and bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Under the policy, private cars are allowed on the streets on alternate days depending on their final license plate numbers, with Sundays exempt. It calls for penalties of around $30 for scofflaws, and its success is to be gauged by daily pollution measurements. In 2014, a World Health Organization study ranked New Delhi's air quality the worst of nearly 1,600 cities surveyed.

In a release issued last week, the Delhi government said that the traffic police and the divisional commissioner would deploy teams to 120 traffic points and that the Transport Department would check for overcharging and "misbehavior" by auto rickshaw drivers. More than 1,200 drivers were caught violating the policy on Monday, according to the Press Trust of India, a news agency.

Skeptics questioned how the measure would be enforced. The Delhi regional government is run by the Aam Aadmi Party, and the police come under the federal government and its Bharatiya Janata Party. Arvind Kejriwal, the Delhi chief minister, has long clashed with the Delhi police.

But perhaps the most entrenched barrier is a Delhi elite used to having drivers standing by at all times. Some of those citizens, members of the capital's upper classes, are up in arms about the change.

Promila Bij, 57, a South Delhi resident, swept into a taxi on Monday morning - the third she had called after two other companies said they had no cars. She arrived at work in West Delhi more than an hour late, she said later in a telephone interview, while her three cars and two drivers were sitting idle at home: All three have license plates ending in odd numbers, which were barred from the road on Monday. When she reached her office, where she works for a nongovernmental organization, she canceled meetings that regularly take her to the satellite city of Gurgaon and to central Delhi.

"I cannot come because I don't have my driver or car," she said. "If you want to call me snooty, all right, I am, because that is my lifestyle and that's how I work."

"You can't say, 'Change your lifestyle' at the snap of a finger," she added.

To accommodate the carless, the government said it would provide 3,000 extra buses. It took out newspaper advertisements, and the chief minister delivered a folksy radio spot on the measure.

"We are truly overwhelmed by the response we have received so far," Kejriwal told reporters outside his home on Friday. "Delhi will show the way to the rest of the country."

But it is not clear that Delhi's experiment will actually reduce pollution, especially as the rules are riddled with exemptions.

Women are allowed to drive any car any time of day, seen as a nod to safety in a city where women face dangers on public transit. Two-wheelers - motorcycles and scooters, which experts say made up the majority of the nearly nine million vehicles on the road as of March in Delhi - are also exempt. Cars using compressed natural gas, and those belonging to senior government officials and judges, can be on the roads any day as well.
© 2016, The New York Times News Service

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