Dear Mr Kejriwal, Why Did You Think Odd-Even Would Work?

Delhi’s second round of Odd-Even didn’t go as well as last time. Here’s a look at the numbers behind the experience.

Updated
India
3 min read
Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has lead the Odd-Even awareness campaign. (Photo altered by <b>The Quint</b>/Liju Joseph)

Odd-Even round two was supposed to be Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s way of proving his commitment to fighting air pollution to politicians and Delhiites alike. Residents were told to expect clear lungs and empty roads.

The plan was meant to reduce the number of cars on Delhi’s roads and targeted airborne particles and chemicals that are hazardous to human health.

India experiences 1.3 million deaths a year from air pollution (out of 5.5 million worldwide)

Under Odd-Even, pollutants would be regulated, Kejriwal said.

But the numbers tell a different story.

The Quint spent the last month collecting data from Delhi’s air quality monitors during the morning and evening rush hours. Even a quick glance shows that not much changed in the last two weeks.

There hasn’t been a significant change in air quality since Odd-Even started. (Graphic: Aaqib Raza Khan)
There hasn’t been a significant change in air quality since Odd-Even started. (Graphic: Aaqib Raza Khan)

The monitors are not without flaws. Some days there was no data, making it difficult to get consistent readings. Throughout the last month, the most consistent air quality monitor was at the United States Embassy, in Chanakyapuri.

Monitors in Mandir Marg, near Connaught Place, had similar readings to those at the US Embassy, but were less regular. Some of the highest air pollution levels were recorded in Civil Lines and Vasant Vihar.

It’s not easy to predict air pollution. On cold winter days, more people burn fuel for warmth, so pollution spikes. This isn’t as much of a problem during spring and summer.

Airborne particle PM2.5 is one of the worst pollutants for human health. (Graphic: Manon Verchot)
Airborne particle PM2.5 is one of the worst pollutants for human health. (Graphic: Manon Verchot)

If a day happens to be windy, then there’s a decent chance airborne particles will be blown away. At the start of Odd-Even 2.0, wind speeds were lower than in previous weeks, The Energy and Resources Institute reported.

It didn’t help that the Bhalswa Landfill caught fire in northwest Delhi, releasing toxins into the air.

Activities within Delhi definitely play a role [in air pollution], but outside factors also play a role.
Sunil Dahiya, Greenpeace India
Air pollution in several parts of Delhi is at a critically high level. (Photo: Reuters)
Air pollution in several parts of Delhi is at a critically high level. (Photo: Reuters)

The causes of air pollution in Delhi are complex, so it’s not surprising that a measure like Odd-Even would not have a dramatic impact. In summer, vehicles are the sixth leading cause of air pollution, contributing to 6 percent of some of the worst airborne particles like PM10 and 9 percent to PM2.5, according to data from the Indian Institute of Technology - Kanpur.

Coal, fly ash, soil and road dust account for 63 percent of air pollution. Even biomass burning contributes more to pollution than cars.

Data from Indian Institute of Technology. (Graphic: Manon Verchot)
Data from Indian Institute of Technology. (Graphic: Manon Verchot)

Still, inhaling car fumes is much worse than dust, experts say. Certain pollutants contain heavy metals and chemicals, which can cause brain and organ damage.

You cannot say that vehicles are less important than dust. It’s about the toxicity that you’re inhaling.
Sunita Narain, Center for Science and Environment
Volunteers remind commuters to follow Odd-Even plan in New Delhi. (Photo: AP/Saurabh Das)
Volunteers remind commuters to follow Odd-Even plan in New Delhi. (Photo: AP/Saurabh Das)

Given the complexity of factors leading to bad air quality, Kejriwal’s confidence that Odd-Even would make a difference is misplaced. But the Chief Minister does realise that he will have to do more than just restrict cars if he wants to improve the health of Delhi’s residents. He has proposed plans to redesign roads and says he wants to improve public transportation.

Still, actually making a dent in air pollution will take much tougher policies and regulations, said Sunita Narain of the Center for Science and Environment, adding that Odd-Even is not a permanent solution. Controlling power plant emissions, taxing diesel and banning old vehicles will be critical to this effort.

This is a battle for survival. Please don’t underestimate this. This is not about government versus people. Governments suffer as much as people.
Sunita Narain, Center for Science and Environment

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