NEW DELHI (REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE) - Millions of people in India's capital started the week on Monday (Nov 4) choking through "eye-burning" smog, with cars taken off the road, schools closed and construction halted.
A poisonous haze envelops New Delhi every winter, caused by vehicle fumes, industrial emissions and smoke from agricultural burning in neighbouring states.
But the current crisis has turned into the worst in three years, and New Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal called for a range of measures to fight what he described as "unbearable pollution".
"Eyes are burning. Pollution is that bad," Kejriwal said.
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.
The authorities in New Delhi on Monday banished from the roads cars with number plates ending in an odd number until at least Nov 15 in a bid to cut hazardous air pollution shrouding the city.
On Monday, drivers with even-numbered license 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 licence 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 an odd number.
Ride-hailing services were exempt from the rule and both Uber and Ola had announced they would not impose surge pricing for the duration of the odd-even scheme.
Vehicular exhaust along with emissions from industry contribute more than 50 per cent of Delhi's air pollution on most days through the year, according to official estimates.
Schools, which were closed on Friday last week, remained shut on Monday, and city-wide construction was halted until Tuesday in Delhi and surrounding areas.
Kejriwal said the authorities were also distributing face masks to schoolchildren.
All construction work has also been ordered to stop.
The authorities brought a van with an air purifier to the Taj Mahal, the country's top tourist site 250km south of Delhi, with fears the pollution was damaging the 17th-century marble mausoleum, the Press Trust of India reported.
With a state election due in Delhi in early 2020, the pollution crisis has also become a casualty of political bickering, with each side blaming the other for the severe conditions.
Kejriwal, who likened Delhi to a "gas chamber" last Friday, said his city had done its part to curb pollution and that the burning of wheat stubble residue on farms outside the capital was responsible for the smog.
But national environment minister Prakash Javadekar accused Kejriwal of politicising the issue, while an MP from the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dismissed the odd-even car rule as a "stunt" and said he planned to ignore it.
A group of environmentalists wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday urging him to "take leadership" on the issue.
The environmentalists said political parties were "intent on fixing the blame while Indians continue to die", PTI reported.
A government monitor on Sunday showed air quality had hit the worst level for the year, at 494 on a scale of 500. The level was well above 400 early on Monday.
India has faced a mounting pollution crisis over the past decade.
Fourteen Indian cities including the capital are among the world's top 15 most polluted cities, according to the World Health Organisation.
Experts warn that both state and national governments needed to go beyond short-term remedies and tackle major pollution causes if air quality is to improve in the long term.
Stop-gap solutions "can't be a substitute for addressing the major long-term chronic sources of air pollution", Daniel Cass, senior vice-president for environmental health of global non-profit Vital Strategies, told AFP.
He said emissions restrictions should be imposed on motorbikes and scooters, which are heavily used in Delhi but exempted from the odd-even scheme, and called for more public transport investment.
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.