Delhi’s Odd-Even Plan: Going Too Far But Not Far Enough?
Policy measures, unless applied regionally, cannot solve the problem of air pollution: they can only redistribute its impacts spatially. (Photo: The Quint)
Policy measures, unless applied regionally, cannot solve the problem of air pollution: they can only redistribute its impacts spatially. (Photo: The Quint)

Delhi’s Odd-Even Plan: Going Too Far But Not Far Enough?

Delhi has firmly captured its place at the top spot in the list of world’s most polluted cities, prompting public alarm, and emergency interventions. With debate and rhetoric flying as high as dust on the city’s streets, a look at the past experiences of Delhi, and of other cities around the world can help us better understand the potential consequences of this intervention.

Delhi has experienced dangerous levels of air pollution in the past as well. At the turn of the 21st century, commercial passenger vehicles were converted to run on compressed natural gas, tighter emissions standards were enforced on private vehicles, and public transport was augmented.

Traffic crawls on a busy road in Delhi. (Photo: iStock)
Traffic crawls on a busy road in Delhi. (Photo: iStock)

A study by Resources for the Future found that some air pollutants such as sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide, declined considerably. Yet another research by Kumar and Foster also found that polluting vehicles and industries simply shifted their base outside the city, increasing the pollution of neighbouring districts! Policy measures, unless applied regionally, cannot solve the problem of air pollution: they can only redistribute its impacts spatially.

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A Spur-Of-The-Moment Action?

  • Studies indicate that the move to switch to CNG had a limited impact as pollution levels rose in neighbouring districts
  • With particulate matter levels being 15 times more than the safe limit urgency of Delhi government is also understandable
  • Safe and accessible public transport system should be pushed as an emergency measure
  • Rationalisation of vehicles will ensure that only one-vehicle drivers belonging to low-income group go off the road

Situation Well Beyond Urgent

A study in 2014 by the World Health Organisation showed that PM2.5 (fine particulate matter, which can cause significant lung and cardiovascular damage) levels in Delhi were 153 g/cubic metres, over 15 times the safe limit of 10 g/cubic metres. And the situation has undoubtedly grown worse now, a year after this report.

Clearly, the situation is well beyond urgent, and one can understand the Delhi government’s rush to seek extreme measures. But will the system they propose, of implementing an alternate-day ban on license plates with odd and even numbers, work? The eventual solution to the air pollution problem is quite obvious: we need to decrease the number of vehicles on the road, and fast!

Dense smog, a fallout of pollution, engulfs  Delhi. (File photo: Reuters)
Dense smog, a fallout of pollution, engulfs Delhi. (File photo: Reuters)

Need For Better Public Transport

There are multiple ways to achieve this. The first, and most important, is not being discussed enough. We need more, accessible, safe, round-the-clock public transport on the road, ensuring first and last mile connectivity. This needs to be pushed ahead as an emergency measure.

Commuters boarding the Delhi metro. More alternatives of public transport need to be provided. (Photo: iStock)
Commuters boarding the Delhi metro. More alternatives of public transport need to be provided. (Photo: iStock)

The second linked option would be to increase road pricing for private cars, an approach that Singapore and many other cities have found very useful. But these are perhaps politically unpalatable in Delhi. There is no powerful lobby supporting them.

Vehicle Rationalisation Didn’t Work in Beijing

Delhi is proposing a third option - vehicle restriction, famously implemented in Beijing during the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games. The effect was short-lived: about 9-12 months afterwards, air pollution levels returned to, and began to exceed the levels before the ban!

This approach has also been tried in Mexico City, Bogota, and Chile: where the challenges of law enforcement are in many ways similar to those that the beleaguered Delhi Police will undoubtedly face, come January.

Traffic assisting coordinators wearing masks  at a bus station amid heavy smog after Beijing  issued its first ever “red alert” for air pollution, December 9, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)
Traffic assisting coordinators wearing masks at a bus station amid heavy smog after Beijing issued its first ever “red alert” for air pollution, December 9, 2015. (Photo: Reuters)

The experience of these cities provides an important warning for Delhi. Those who can afford to, buy additional vehicles, typically an older, more polluting model. In the long term the number of cars and the levels of air pollution have increased in these cities.

Bans such as the one proposed in Delhi will only ensure that one-vehicle drivers belonging to low-income group go off the road: without adequate, safe public transport, vulnerable sections such as low-income working women will be the most affected. The one “stakeholder” that is sure to benefit is the car lobby, which can expect to see booming sales in the coming months.

Need More Innovative Solutions

With equity and social justice being some of AAP’s most projected concerns, this problem needs to be tackled on a different front. A study by Andrew Foster and Naresh Kumar demonstrated that it is the poor who suffer the most from air pollution, with poor men spending about seven hours outside their homes each day compared to their wealthy counterparts, who spend only an hour outside daily. Public transport linked to congestion pricing is the only way to address this linked social and environmental problem.

Motorists and cyclists  wait patiently in a traffic jam in  Delhi. The modes of transport include bicycles, motorbikes, mopeds, vans, cars and rickshaws. (Photo: iStock)
Motorists and cyclists wait patiently in a traffic jam in Delhi. The modes of transport include bicycles, motorbikes, mopeds, vans, cars and rickshaws. (Photo: iStock)

An aggressive move towards public transport, and introducing higher road pricing for cars seems like a much more effective, and certainly much more equitable way to address the air pollution crisis. Will the car lobbies permit this? This is a chance for Delhi to serve as a role model for other Indian cities, which are driving in the same direction.

(The writer is Professor of Sustainability at Azim Premji University, and author of “Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present, and Future”, Oxford University Press, India, forthcoming in April 2016.)

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