Curbs on schools, cars as Delhi chokes again

Updated on Nov 05, 2022 04:50 AM IST

The Delhi government on Friday ordered primary schools shut, restricted outdoor activities for older students, and imposed a ₹20,000 fine on the use of private diesel vehicles not conforming to the new BS-VI emissions standards, scrambling with emergency measures as the air remained in hazardous levels for the second straight day.

Dense smog at the Signature Bridge in New Delhi on Friday (ANI)
Dense smog at the Signature Bridge in New Delhi on Friday (ANI)
By, New Delhi

The Delhi government on Friday ordered primary schools shut, restricted outdoor activities for older students, and imposed a 20,000 fine on the use of private diesel vehicles not conforming to the new BS-VI emissions standards, scrambling with emergency measures as the air remained in hazardous levels for the second straight day.

The Delhi government, which was deliberating on recommendations the previous day by the Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM) for the National Capital Region, also ordered half its staff to work from home and said private offices will be asked to follow suit.

How these factors play out will remain to be seen, in part since farm fires continue in neighbouring states, particularly Punjab which recorded 2,437 incidents on Friday. As a result, the share of pollutants from farm fires remained at a high of 30% on Friday, marginally lower than the 35% a day before, according to the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research (Safar).

According to the 4pm bulletin by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the 24-hour average of the air quality index (AQI) stood at 447, relenting slightly from the severe-plus levels of 450-plus. But by 7pm, the AQI had once again reached into the severe-plus to hit 454.

Such levels of pollution are hazardous not just for vulnerable people in young and old age-groups, but can also leave healthy people with respiratory problems after prolonged exposure. Cases of asthma have been reported to spike, according to clinicians and hospitals across the country.

Also read: Up in the air: Delhi pvt schools brace for digital switch, next week key

But a predicted change in wind direction and speed could improve the air quality over the weekend anyway, forecasts said, before worsening again next week.

The crisis, recurring for at least the eighth year, has prompted a political row, especially since the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) now rules in Delhi as well as Punjab, a state it blamed in the past for the air pollution surge in the run-up to winter. AAP chief and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal held a press conference along with his Punjab counterpart Bhagwant Mann, admitting responsibility for the farm fires, and sought more time to address the problem.

But the BJP hit back, with its national vice-president and Delhi unit in-charge Baijayant Panda saying Kejriwal was busy dealing with infighting in the AAP in Himachal Pradesh while people in Delhi were choking. “History will never forgive him,” he said.

At a press conference, BJP national spokesperson Shehzad Poonawala alleged Kejriwal was working as a “part-time” chief minister of Delhi and should tell people what steps he had taken to protect them from pollution.

Earlier, Delhi’s environment minister Gopal Rai chaired a meeting including multiple departments where the decision to follow CAQM recommendations was taken. Rai also said the odd-even vehicle use curbs are on the table and will be invoked if needed. The restrictions for schools will remain in force till Tuesday, according to an order issued by the Delhi government separately.

Anyone caught violating the diesel vehicles ban will face a fine of 20,000.

“With the implementation of the new restrictions of Grap (graded response action plan) in Delhi, diesel vehicles other than those used for essential services will be banned in Delhi. Only CNG, petrol and electric vehicles will be allowed to enter Delhi. There will also be a ban on medium and heavy vehicles of diesel registered in Delhi, which are not connected to essential services. Small vehicles with diesel engines which are not BS-VI compliant are also being banned,” he said.

The restrictions will apply to all vehicles on Bharat Stage III and diesel vehicles on Stage IV emission standard unless they are being used for essential or emergency services. Officials said there are no broad exemptions under these categories for light motor vehicles, or cars, since that can lead to misuse, but goods vehicles carrying medicines and some essential items may be exempted.

The curbs on vehicles, the order issued by the government added, would be in place till further notice. There are roughly 300,000 diesel vehicles covered under the ban and roughly 200,000 BS-III petrol vehicles.

To implement the ban, a six-member monitoring committee headed by the special commissioner of transport has been formed. Rai also said all linear construction projects in Delhi such as highways, flyovers and roads had been halted, while the entry of trucks into the capital was stopped, with the government writing a letter to Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to divert such trucks to the eastern and western peripheral expressways.

According to Early Warning System for Delhi, a Centre-run forecasting system, there will be a change in the wind direction to south-easterly by Saturday, while local wind speed will also pick up, allowing the AQI to improve to ‘very poor’ over the weekend. CAQM is scheduled to review the Stage IV measures on Sunday.

During his press conference, Rai said the six-member monitoring committee for the diesel vehicle ban will consist of two officials each from the transport department, traffic police and the Delhi Pollution Control Committee.

The minister also said to comply with the CAQM order, only 50% workforce — considered essential — will now be coming to government offices, with an advisory on this to be issued to private offices too to encourage work from home for their staff. He added that the government issued an order to the transport department to procure 500 more CNG buses to ply in Delhi, and was considering staggered timings for markets and local offices.

“We are exploring the possibility of opening offices and markets at different timings. This will be done in consultation with the associations there and the revenue commissioner have been asked to prepare a plan and submit it to the government.”

Also read: WFH for 50% govt staff, primary schools shut among steps for Delhi air pollution

Forecasts from CAQM shows that Delhi’s AQI is expected to improve from ‘severe’ to ‘very poor’ on Saturday.

“This improvement will occur on the back of a change in the wind direction. It will transition to southeasterly by Saturday and the local wind speed will also pick up, oscillating between 8-18 km/hr during the day. On Sunday, similarly good wind speed is expected and the wind direction will be northeasterly, meaning on both days, intrusion from farm fires will reduce,” said VK Soni, scientist at the India Meteorological Department (IMD) and a member of the CAQM sub-committee on Grap.

Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director, research and advocacy at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) said these bans were emergency measures aimed at halting the spike in pollution, but states could not rely on them each winter. “These are disruptive measures but can be avoided if there is year-round action. The idea behind Grap is to be an emergency-based system and these are extreme measures that can act in a very short term. For the long term, we need action on sources of pollution,” she said.

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