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India's capital restricts cars amid extreme smog

New Delhi restricted many private vehicles from the roads Monday to try to lessen pollution as people gasped and their eyes burned in toxic smog that exacerbated a public health crisis.

'It is so difficult to breathe — the air is choking,' New Delhi resident says

A crow sits on a barricade in front of India Gate in New Delhi smog on Sunday. The air quality index for New Delhi was 'severe' at 436, about nine times the recommended maximum. (Adnan Abidi /Reuters)

New Delhi restricted many private vehicles from the roads Monday to try to lessen pollution as people gasped and their eyes burned in toxic smog that exacerbated a public health crisis.

The "odd-even" scheme will restrict private vehicles with odd-number licence plates to driving on odd dates while even-numbered plates are allowed on even-numbered dates. It was begun days after authorities in the Indian capital began emergency control measures and ordered the closure of schools as pollution levels reached a three-year high.

The state-run Central Pollution Control Board's air quality index for New Delhi was "severe" at 436, about nine times the recommended maximum.

Traffic police officers, wearing protective masks, signalled cars to stop for not following the temporary rule. New Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal appealed for residents to follow the rule and for private taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers to support it.

Authorities said almost 1.2 million registered vehicles in Delhi will be off-road every day during the two-week restrictions.

WATCH: See the heavy smog blanketing New Delhi

India's presidential palace and India Gate war memorial are completely engulfed in smog Monday, prompting vehicle restrictions and flight delays. 0:50

"The air is absolutely unbreathable," Divya Taneja told CBC News Network. The New Delhi resident said all she can see is haze and smoke.

"It is so difficult to breathe — the air is choking," she said.

People had a mixed response to the smog, with many seen outdoors not wearing protective masks.

"I don't think this odd-even scheme will do anything. It's mostly the stubble burning in the states of Punjab and Haryana which contributes to the pollution, and industrial pollution is also high," said Ajay Jasra, a Delhi resident.

'I feel like moving out'

Air pollution in New Delhi and northern Indian states peaks in the winter as farmers in neighbouring agricultural regions set fire to clear land after the harvest and prepare for the next crop season. The pollution in the Indian capital also peaks after Diwali celebrations, the Hindu festival of light, when people set off fireworks.

People distraught over the pollution say they wanted to leave the city of more than 20 million people due to its poor air quality.

See what one area looks like without the smog — and what it looks like with the heavy air pollution.

(Divya Taneja)

"I feel like moving out as well because I'm young and I'm still on a stage of building up my life and my career," Delhi resident Divyam Mathur said.

The vehicle restrictions have been the Aam Aadmi Party-led city government's pet project to fight air pollution. It was implemented twice in 2016 but remained controversial as critics have debated its success.

Vehicle and industrial emissions, pollutants from firecrackers, and construction dust sharply increase each winter, exacerbating what is already a public health crisis.

Millions of people in India's capital started this week dealing with heavy smog that prompted officials to close schools, halt construction and take some cars off the road. (Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters)

Last year, the New Delhi government ordered firefighters to sprinkle water from high-rise buildings to settle dust, stopped garbage fires and ordered builders to cover construction sites to stop dust enveloping the area as hazardous air quality affected millions of people.

World Health Organization data released last year gave India the dubious distinction of having the world's 10 most polluted cities.

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