Cities & Architecture

As Odd-Even Makes a Comeback, Time to Think of Additional Measures

The Aam Aadmi Party government believes it has found the miracle cure for the Delhi’s perennial air pollution and traffic congestion problems. But more must be done to tackle these issues, including augmenting the public transport system.

A pile-up of cars seen on a Delhi road. Credit: PTI

A pile-up of cars seen on a Delhi road. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: Enthused by the ‘success’ of the odd-even car rationing scheme, the Delhi government has announced the roll out of the scheme’s second phase, beginning April 15. According to a government notification, the scheme, to run from April 15-30, will function with similar exemptions as previously.

The scheme’s first outing in January was heralded a success by the government and also pleased many commuters as a large number of cars were made to stay off the roads on alternate days. For other categories of vehicles, such as two-wheelers, the reduced congestion was a godsend, as was it for other commuters, including women and government functionaries, who were exempted.

The ‘success’ was acknowledged globally and brought Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal international acclaim. Fortune magazine even put him on their list of 50 top leaders for implementing the scheme and bringing the air pollution levels down in Delhi.

Car rationing plans have traditionally been used by cities as an emergency measure to reduce pollution in the winter months when a combination of low wind speed, high moisture content in the air, and smoke and fog cause excessive air pollution. So when Delhi adopted the scheme in the first half of January, it was seen as a step in that direction. However, unlike in January, when the city was engulfed by excessive air pollution, the scheme will now play out in the second half of April with no smog around.

The government now wants to make this emergency measure a regular feature. Plans are being drawn to run the scheme for a fortnight every month for the next year and a half.

Need for more measures

Clearly, Delhi’s Aam Aadmi Party government believes it has found in odd-even the miracle cure for the city’s perennial air pollution and traffic congestion problems.

However, empirical data clearly does not support this claim. According to a report by the Central Pollution Control Board on the impact of the odd-even scheme in January, “with no clear trend and wide fluctuations observed in the concentrations,” it was evident that the meteorology and emissions from other polluting sources were major factors impacting air quality of Delhi during the period.

The report had also observed that “higher wind speeds and mixing height in general result in better dispersion and lower pollution levels.” Overall, it had stated, that “while some reduction in air pollution is likely to happen due to odd-even scheme, a single factor or action cannot substantially reduce air pollution levels in Delhi. Therefore, a comprehensive set of actions following an integrated approach is required to make substantial improvement in air quality.’’

Even environmentalists who have been spearheading the campaign for clear air in Delhi for a long time believe that odd-even alone will not suffice and more needs to be done by augmenting the public transport system and implementing the parking policy as recommended by the Supreme Court to restrict the use of private vehicles.

Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director for research and advocacy at the Centre For Science and Environment (CSE), says that the odd-even scheme should not be confused with short- and medium-term action. “It is part of emergency measures to curb pollution.”

“Beijing has a pollution has an emergency action under which they would also do odd-even, shut down power plants and industrial units, ban bar-be-queues and bonfires. So far in India no city had ever come up with any emergency action plan. The odd-even in Delhi was the first such action. But you need to do more than just odd-even,” Roychowdhury said.

As part of other affirmative actions, Roychowdhury said, “there is now action to now control the trucks from coming inside the city and make the violators pay the environment compensation charge. The money from this charge is to be invested towards improving public transport and infrastructure. All taxis have to move to cleaner natural gas. There is also a ban on registration of big diesel cars and so forth.”

The entire gamut of public transport strategy also needs to be evolved. Roychowdhury said CSE had demanded that women and two-wheeler riders not be exempted from the odd-even scheme but the government pleaded that the existing public transport system would not be able to take that much load. With the metro system already stretched, she insisted that “other measures also have to be put into place quickly. The Delhi government budget this time has said that this year they are going to bring 3,000 new buses and that they will improve the bus service infrastructure and use the ITES service to improve bus service. Also, cycling and walking infrastructure would be created on all Public Works Department roads. We will hold the Delhi Government accountable for these measures next.”

Although environmentalists are glad the odd-even scheme enabled an improvement in the overall quality of life, Roychowdhury draws attention to other aspects.

“Everyone is only looking at the pollution levels, what they are not looking at is the ambient level. You should also look at the public health perspective because your exposure to pollution is maximum when you are travelling on the road. Now if you halve the number of vehicles, then your personal exposure to the toxic fumes is getting reduced. What it also has demonstrated is that the moment you reduce the traffic volume, the public transport in the city becomes very efficient. No one is capturing the other benefits of odd-even, which is how the fleet utilisation of the buses improved from 80% to 95%, how the burning of fuel reduced in the city, and how it has reduced the overall journey time of the people,” she said.

As for permanent measures that need to be taken, she said, “we will have to ask the Delhi government to impose high parking charges and high taxes on personal vehicles to reduce the usage of personal vehicles on the roads throughout the year and not just during odd-even. We should not lose out on the larger message of this whole experiment, which is to reduce vehicles on the roads to improve public transport.”

Roychowdhury is very clear that people should pay for parking at public places. “You have to pay for use of public land. In this case it should be daily or monthly. This is to make people understand that it would be expensive for them to use a car. Now we are pushing the government to do that. It should be like Shimla, Gangtok and Aizawl where you cannot buy a car if you do not have a proof of legal parking.”

A discriminative policy?

As for the car owners, Roychowdhury refuses to acknowledge that any of them can suffer discrimination on economic grounds. “A car owner cannot be from the economically weaker section. This myth should be broken.”

However, many believe that the odd-even scheme is bad in law as it discriminates on account of economic criteria, gender and regionalism. “A person owning two cars or capable of buying a second does not suffer because of the scheme. Also, it discriminates on the basis of gender because not only does it exempt all women drivers, it also lays down that if a man were to travel with them in an odd-numbered car on an even day or vice versa then the vehicle could be challaned. Similarly, Delhi does not belong to Delhi’ites alone but to all Indians. However, if anyone is coming by a taxi to the city for health reasons or otherwise on a given day, he or she will not be able to use the vehicle the following day,” reasoned an office-goer who commutes to New Delhi from Ghaziabad each day.

Some have even said the odd-even scheme adversely impacts older people who buy a vehicle close to their retirement age for it to last them through a better part of their old age.

Vijender Gupta, the leader of the opposition in the Delhi assembly, explained why the voices against the scheme have been muted despite such rampant discrimination: “Clearly with only about 15-20% of the road users being car owners who are getting impacted and over 80% actually benefiting from decongestion of the roads, the voices in favour of the scheme are more.”

But, he cautioned, that the threat lies in an emergency scheme becoming a regular feature. “It would have catastrophic results if the government were to announce it as a continuous or long-term one,” said Gupta, adding that people have already stopped selling their old cars when buying new ones and this would ultimately lead to greater parking congestion.

Even Delhi Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung recently said in a television interview that the odd-even scheme had not cut down on pollution but had only reduced congestion. However, he still lauded Kejriwal for daring to take up the scheme, saying he had himself dithered on it while Delhi was under President’s rule.