To tackle severe air pollution in Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party government has decided to reintroduce last year’s odd-even road rationing scheme for five days starting November 13. But the proposal hit a snag on Friday with the National Green Tribunal asking the government to establish that the scheme is indeed effective. The tribunal is scheduled to rule on the matter on Saturday.

Under the scheme, private vehicles with odd and even registration numbers would ply on alternate days between 8 am and 8 pm. CNG, electric and hybrid cars would be exempt as would those carrying women or children under 12 or in school uniform. The odd-even plan was first enforced in Delhi for the first half of January 2016 and then for the second half of April that year.

The odd-even scheme is included in the Graded Response Action Plan to contain severe pollution in the National Capital Region. However, the Delhi government’s decision to implement the scheme from November 13 did not have the backing of either the central task force supposed to recommend such action or the Supreme Court-appointed Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority entrusted with enforcing the Action Plan, senior officials said.

On Wednesday, Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal held a meeting with Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and other state officials to discuss whether Severe Plus or Emergency category measures under the Graded Response Action Plan needed to be implemented in the city. Such measures were required, it was decided, and, accordingly, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee ordered a ban on all construction activity and entry of trucks into the city except the ones bringing in essential commodities. It also appealed to parents to restrain their children from engaging in outdoor activities as long as severe pollution persisted. Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia had already ordered all schools to shut down until Sunday after the Indian Medical Association declared the severe pollution a public health emergency.

The Graded Response Action Plan classifies pollution under four broad categories – Moderate to Poor, Very Poor, Severe, Severe Plus or Emergency.

In its order, the Pollution Control Committee also told the Delhi Transport Department to prepare for the odd-even scheme. “However, there were no specifications mentioned about the actual implementation of the scheme this time,” said an official who attended Wednesday’s meeting. “Some scientists present in the meeting speculated that pollution levels would drop down to Very Poor by Monday and any deliberation on odd-even was not on the table as such. It was not necessary because odd-even comes under the Emergency category and the environmental conditions are expected to change by Monday.”

As previously reported, the lethal cocktail of air-borne pollutants that has engulfed much of northern India and Pakistan is likely to clear up over the weekend.

‘A big challenge’

As directed by the Supreme Court, the central government notified the Graded Action Response Plan for the National Capital Region on January 12 this year, and entrusted its enforcement to the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority, a 15-member panel formed by the Supreme Court in 1998 and reconstituted from time to time.

“In the first meeting of EPCA post-January 12, it was decided that provisions pertaining to the Moderate to Poor category of pollution should be enforced immediately and made a round-the-year process,” said Polash Mukherjee, a research associate at the Clean Air and Sustainable Mobility Unit of the Centre for Science and Environment, whose director general, Sunita Narain, is a member of the authority.

The measures for tackling Moderate to Poor category pollution include capping emission from thermal power plants, sprinkling water to settle dust, penalising visibly polluting vehicles, restricting the entry of trucks, and growing grass and plants along dust-exposed roads. “Effective implementation of GRAP provisions requires coordination among multiple agencies not only in Delhi but also Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, which have districts that are part of the National Capital Region,” Mukherjee said, “and that has been a big challenge.”

Coordination is far from the only major problem, said a senior Delhi Public Work Department official who asked not to be identified. For example, many roads in Delhi are not wide enough for growing grass and plants along their sides. “Besides, it takes time for the grass and plants to become visible,” the official said, suggesting it was not a short-term solution anyway.

Odd-even not recommended

To initiate special measures under the Action Plan to tackle Severe category pollution, the Environment Pollution Authority has to alert the central task force, which then takes the final call. The task force met on Thursday but did not recommend any special measures such as the odd-even plan, observing that pollution levels were already coming down. Despite this, the Delhi government announced the road rationing plan.

“The measures suggested under GRAP should not be politicised,” said a senior scientist with the Environment Pollution Authority. “Firstly, implementation has to be scientific. If experts have speculated that pollution levels will drop from Severe to Very Poor, a category that does not require odd-even, it cannot be recommended. Secondly, if such measures are implemented, they should adhere to the standards prescribed by EPCA, which asks for no exemptions to two-wheelers and women drivers.”

Indeed, the exemptions were questioned by the National Green Tribunal too on Friday.