Pollution control

Why the odd-even rationing of Delhi's road space is a worthwhile experiment

Sceptics of the Delhi government's ambitious plan to combat air pollution forget that the right to non-toxic air precedes the right to drive.

Last week, the Delhi government announced several measures to combat the hazardous levels of air pollution in the national capital. These include steps to reduce the 80 daily deaths owing to the current spike in cardiopulmonary emergencies in Delhi’s hospitals.

It also declared some medium and long-term actions, such as shutting down one coal power plant and possibly another; raising of vehicle and fuel emissions standards in just one year (a very bold move); limiting operating hours and enforcing emission standards for diesel trucks entering Delhi; adding more bus and Metro services; taking steps to reduce road dust, and the open burning of trash, leaves, and other biomass in Delhi.

What intrigues me is the chatterati's single-minded focus on the move to take odd or even licence plated cars off the streets on alternate days. They are posting articles on why such rationing of road space won’t work, or how car owners will rush to buy cheap used cars that will be even more polluting.

Many conveniently ignored the fact that this is a 15-day emergency measure, that no rich man is likely to buy another car for eight out of 15 days that he won’t be able to drive his primary car. Those complaining seem to include entitled upper class folks who forget that driving is not a right but a privilege, that the right to non-toxic air precedes the right to drive. They have no idea how bad Delhi’s air is right now and what it’s doing to our bodies.

Considered move

Even if this measure became permanent at a future date (after due analysis and debate), it is unlikely to happen without scaling up public transportation, in certain zones before others, and during certain hours.

Designed right, it will accompany disincentives for diesel (which emits seven-and-a-half times more harmful particular matter than petrol), reclaiming sidewalks for pedestrians, bike lanes, and a much higher cost of car ownership – by charging, for instance, an annual registration fee that rises steeply for two or more cars in a household, raising parking fees, limiting and enforcing parking in designated spaces, etc.

To deter people from buying a second car to beat driving restrictions, its license plate could be given the same last digit as their first car. More options might become possible in due course, such as congestion pricing in certain zones and issuing citations via traffic cameras. That some devious little minds may find ways to beat the system is hardly a good argument against trying to redesign our transport systems and urban spaces.

Will there be some problems in implementing the 15-day even/odd policy? Surely. But given the public health emergency on our hands, this option simply has to be tried. It has worked as an emergency measure against air pollution in many world cities.

Great opportunity

Notably, 55% of Delhi’s population lives within 500 metres of major roads, so their wintertime exposure to vehicular pollution is especially high. About 25% of all rides in Delhi happen on private cars and two-wheelers. Yet these private vehicles monopolise our shared spaces and cause disproportionately higher pollution. If private vehicles aren’t allowed on alternate days for a fortnight, at most 13% more riders will have to get around like how the other 75% do today – via 40 lakh rides on buses, 25 lakh on the Metro, taxis, auto-rickshaws, bicycles, on foot, etc.

Why not see this as an opportunity to find out how our public transportation needs to scale up and where, and how/if that could be combined with some form of road space rationing? Besides, even if we see only 30% fewer cars on these even/odd days, it will still reduce traffic congestion in Delhi. Traffic will flow more easily, reducing emissions due to idling in traffic jams, allowing buses to move faster, and kicking up less dust. People may even discover carpooling. Let’s measure what it does to our city. Let’s experiment.

Again: Driving is not a right, it’s a privilege. It has a social cost. We need to quit empathising with those inconvenienced by this emergency measure, because their daily driving causes a lot worse than inconvenience to our lungs. When 40% of our kids are failing lung capacity tests (with irreversible lung damage), it’s time to try various measures and see what works – and adapt.

Of course, I wish the Delhi government had acted sooner and done even more. For instance, it decided not to issue health advisories, nor safeguard vulnerable groups with free or low-cost pollution masks (e.g., traffic cops, auto-drivers, street vendors), nor make LPG cylinders easily available to the migrant poor who end up burning wood and coal. This is a shame. But politics is the art of the possible, as I realised afresh watching the politicians and the bureaucrats at the Delhi secretariat leading up to this announcement. I think it will go a long way in raising public awareness of air pollution and opening the door for the next round of difficult, unpopular, yet necessary initiatives.

Namit Arora is leading a task force on air pollution at the Delhi Dialogue Commission, a think tank of the Delhi government.

This article first appeared on blog.shunya.net

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