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Workers brace for 12-hour days as Delhi battles pollution

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The measure by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is the most concerted effort by the government yet to reduce the number of exhaust-belching automobiles in the world's most polluted metropolitan area as discontent among the city's 16.8 million residents grows.

[NEW DEHLI] For the next two weeks New Delhi resident Saurabh Sanyal will work for more than 12 hours every other day.

Mr Sanyal isn't alone. Starting today, Manoj Sharma, chief executive of Mindpie, an event management company, will do the same. It's not work pressure that's prompting them to stay in office longer but the city administration's plan to bench half of the Indian capital's 2.8 million private vehicles daily. Sanyal, who has an even-numbered car, will reach office before the measures take effect at 8am and leave after 8pm when all vehicles will be allowed on the roads.

The measure by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is the most concerted effort by the government yet to reduce the number of exhaust-belching automobiles in the world's most polluted metropolitan area as discontent among the city's 16.8 million residents grows.

New Delhi joins Beijing as capitals of the two most populous nations struggle to control runaway pollution brought on by decades of economic growth and lax environmental laws.

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"These are emergency actions and we must support and make this work," said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of research at advocacy group Centre for Science and Environment.

"People will be forced out of their comfort zones and would have to think of options like carpooling or taking the public transport or reaching their destination before 8am."

India's Central Pollution Control Board has also asked three states adjoining Delhi to take measures to reduce pollution. The agency directed Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan on Tuesday to stop open-air burning of garbage, use of kerosene and coal for cooking and control dust pollution at construction sites.

HAZARDOUS LEVELS

The city was the world's most polluted measured by PM2.5 - tiny, toxic particles that lead to respiratory diseases - with an annual average of 153 micrograms per cubic meter, according to a 2014 World Health Organisation database. A reading of 25 or lower is considered safe. The reading was at 376.9 micro grams per cubic meter, classified as hazardous, at 9am on Friday, according to the US Embassy in New Delhi.

Delhi's local government has been running advertisements in newspapers and billboards at city's major intersections and tapping children in schools to sensitize them about the need for a cleaner environment. Volunteers will assist policemen at city's main traffic intersections to spot violators who will be fined 2,000 rupees (S$43), New Delhi's Transport Minister Gopal Rai said.

To ease the citizens' woes, the Delhi government will increase the frequency of the services on metro rail and run additional buses, Mr Rai said.

CAR POOL

Ministers including Mr Kejriwal and Mr Rai will travel to their offices using the car pool, according to India Today TV. Tourism Minister Kapil Mishra rode a motorbike, exempt from the restriction, to work.

Mr Sanyal, who is the secretary general of the PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a Delhi-based industry lobby, says government will need to do more to curb the pollution. "Other culprits like construction activities that are bigger contributors to Delhi's pollution" needs to be checked, he said.

The Delhi government describes the odd-even restrictions on vehicles as an experiment that will run for 15 days to gauge its efficacy. For now, the move has been endorsed by India's top court which banned registrations of diesel-engine vehicles of 2 litres or more last month.

The curbs on vehicles will exclude motorcycles, scooters and essential services as well as women driving alone or with children.

"It isn't a big deal of change to my schedule to put in long working hours," said Sharma of Mindpie, who drives about 30km daily from Noida, a Delhi suburb. "If this continues for a longer period, then I will have look at an alternative."

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