Is Delhi’s Odd-Even Experiment Inspiring Enough for Other Cities?


One of the biggest successes of Delhi’s plan may well be that it has inspired a larger debate, prompting a number of other Indian cities to look seriously at their own problems of air pollution. (Photo: iStock/Altered by The Quint)
One of the biggest successes of Delhi’s plan may well be that it has inspired a larger debate, prompting a number of other Indian cities to look seriously at their own problems of air pollution. (Photo: iStock/Altered by The Quint)

Is Delhi’s Odd-Even Experiment Inspiring Enough for Other Cities?

Delhi government’s odd-even traffic management plan has brought mixed results in the past 12 days. While it seems to have succeeded in traffic reduction, several reports suggest there has been no real impact on air pollution. Of course, weather patterns, industrial pollution, and the burning of fuel wood also contribute to air pollution in Delhi, especially in the winter months. It is also true that it may be too soon to judge the effect of the ban as air pollution levels, having built up over a period of years, may take a while to abate.

(Photo: AP/Altered by <b>The Quint</b>)
(Photo: AP/Altered by The Quint)

One of the biggest successes of Delhi’s plan may well be that it has inspired a larger debate, prompting a number of other Indian cities to look seriously at their own problems of air pollution. Ahmedabad has recently announced plans
to develop a milder version of road rationing, keeping 20 percent of cars off the roads every week day, while the Maharashtra government has announced that they are following Delhi’s experiences with interest to see if they should implement a version of road rationing in Mumbai.

Local Factors Vary Across Cities

While all of India seems to be looking at Delhi for clear-cut answers to the question of what can be done, the reality is that a straightforward answer is unlikely to emerge. Most cities which have experimented with road rationing policies, such as Paris and Beijing, have implemented them for very short periods of time. Long-term success of such interventions depend on a host of other factors including the availability of public transport (especially convenient options for last-mile connectivity), local weather conditions (road rationing may be less feasible in the Indian summer), and the willingness of local residents to follow the rules (as the days of initial enthusiasm turn into months and years).

Heavy traffic, caused by monsoon rains, is seen on a flyover in the  city of Chennai. (File photo: Reuters)
Heavy traffic, caused by monsoon rains, is seen on a flyover in the city of Chennai. (File photo: Reuters)

Traffic management in Indian cities presents a complex and locally varying challenge. Metros have the highest number of cars (such as Delhi with 7.35 million registered cars, followed by Bangalore with 4.1 million and Chennai with 3.7 million). Yet other smaller cities such as Chandigarh, Ludhiana and Coimbatore far surpass metros in terms of the number of vehicles as a proportion of their population. Chandigarh has the dubious distinction of being the only Indian city to have more registered vehicles than city residents!

Snapshotclose

Need for Smart & Healthy Cities

  • Ahmedabad has recently announced plans keep 20 percent of cars off the roads every week day.
  • Maharashtra govt has announced that they are following Delhi’s experiences with interest.
  • 123 out of the 124 Indian cities for which air pollution levels are available contain unacceptable levels of PM2.5.
  • While India is gearing up for techno-fixes under the smart city programme, we have an urgent need for healthy cities.

Different Traffic Density

Other anomalies further confound the national picture. Despite having less than half the number of cars that Delhi has, Chennai has over eight times the traffic density of Delhi: because the traffic in Chennai is compressed across a much shorter road length (by over a factor of 15). How does one develop a plan to manage traffic across cities under such conditions?

Yet a series of connected facts stand out starkly. First, that we have far too many private vehicles on the road. Second, we have levels of air pollution that are way too high. And third, that the health impacts of air pollution and smog are unacceptable, especially impacting the young, the old, the poor, and those who are already sick.



(Photo: iStockphoto/Altered by <b>The Quint</b>)
(Photo: iStockphoto/Altered by The Quint)

Need for Real-Time Data

Despite the complexity of local factors, this crisis demands intervention at the national level. Most Indian cities lack real time spatial data on air pollution. Such data is essential to study the relative role of factors such as road width, weather, topography, ecology, and traffic composition on air pollution. Real time data-sets on air quality are only available in a couple of locations in India, as visible in this recent global map on real time air quality.

In most Indian cities, air pollution data is still recorded by hand on paper, and collated at the state level before being sent to the Central Pollution Control Board, resulting in frequent delays of up to several months between data collection and public release.

(Photo: Reuters/Altered by <b>The Quint</b>)
(Photo: Reuters/Altered by The Quint)

National Plan for Tackling Air Pollution

A simple programme of planting trees on city roads can contribute significantly to a reduction in air pollution , as our research has established in Bengaluru. Better public transport, stringent monitoring and enforcement of curbs on polluting vehicles, and the closure or revamping of polluting industries, constitute other essential “no-brainer” steps to help tackle India’s air pollution crisis. These interventions require sustained political will, and an urgency of action.

India’s air pollution and related health crisis cannot be left to the whims of individual city administrators, most of whom seem lackadaisical, and unable or unwilling to confront the magnitude of the mess that the country is in. 123 out of the 124 Indian cities for which air pollution levels are available contain unacceptable levels of PM2.5 (fine particulate air pollutant matter, particularly dangerous for human health). While India is gearing up for techno-fixes under the smart city programme, we have an urgent need for healthy cities. Can we develop a national action plan in this 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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