A decision in haste?


The odd-even scheme was perhaps a decision that was taken without taking into account other contributing factors

While there is no question on the motive, the means have been debated a lot

On December 3, 2015, the comments of the Supreme Court of India on the air pollution levels in the national capital brought to the fore the real magnitude of the problem. The adage ‘living in a gas chamber’ that was used by the court to make sense of the situation served as a wakeup call to many of the lawmakers as well as the ordinary residents. The Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal reacted immediately to the directive of the apex court to present a comprehensive action plan to combat the pollution levels by announcing the ‘odd-even’ scheme.

Taking cue from China which has successfully implemented a similar scheme in Beijing, this knee-jerk reaction of the Delhi Government was indeed a bold step. According to this, only vehicles with odd number plates can ply on odd days and only those with even number plates can ply on even days from 8am to 8pm. Exemptions are given to emergency services vehicles, SPG (Special Protection Group) protectees, Vehicles with Defense Ministry number plates, pilot cars, embassy cars, two-wheelers, cars driven by single women, parents ferrying children to school and vehicles that are run on CNG.

The first phase of the scheme that was implemented from January 1, 2016- January 15 2016 saw the successful compliance of the rules by the city’s residents. According to a study conducted by the Energy Policy Institute of Chicago (EPIC) of the University of Chicago and Evidence of Policy Design (EPD) of Harvard University, the overall air pollution levels in Delhi came down by 10-13 per cent. Riding high on the success of this report and the lesser traffic congestion seen on the roads, the government went ahead with the second phase of this scheme.  The two weeks starting from April 15, 2016 to April 30, 2016 again saw people adhering to the rules and regulations. But the surfacing of certain reports has called to question the actual success rate of this policy and has opened up far wider debates on the logic behind such a sudden implementation.

First to come out was the Delhi government’s report in the first phase of the scheme where it was claimed that the most deadly particulate matter, PM 2.5 has recorded a ‘definitive declining trend’. The statistics were immediately contested by Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC), Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), and the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology which had all recorded pollution levels well above permissible limits. Experts attributed any decline that could have been evidenced to the prevailing wind conditions in the first phase. In the second phase, the fact that the particulate matter can absorb heat from the summer sun and rise to higher altitudes was taken note of.  The sky looks clearer as the matter gets carried away by the summer winds. Then came the Delhi government’s decision to set up a six-member panel to look into the issue of increased traffic during the second phase.  The CPCB in its report submitted to the National Green Tribunal also stated that there was no change observed in the pollution levels since the rolling out of the scheme.

The other side

The most visible success of the odd-even has been in terms of less traffic congestion seen on the roads during the first phase.  When the idea was first implemented, there were a lot of factors that worked to the government’s advantage.  Immediately after the SC directive, people began viewing pollution with more seriousness.  The grey cloudy skies brought home the urgency of the situation and everyone was willing to be a part of this novel experiment. For those who did not want to comply for the sake of environmental concerns, the Rs 2,000 fine imposed by the authorities served as a deterrent in breaking the rules. That was also the time when the schools were closed and the weather was also not harsh on people.

All those factors that were once in favor of the scheme were absent in the second phase. The schools had reopened, the phase was marked by the arrival of the scorching summer and the skies were brighter. The novelty had waned away and people already had a clear idea about how Delhi’s public transportation works. And as is the case in India with all rules and regulations, the people had already devised ways to work their way through the scheme.

While implementing the scheme, the one major factor that the government overlooked was that of the social realities in India. When the decision was made to ban half the cars plying on road on a particular day, two things were forgotten. One, the distance to the workplace makes it absolutely necessary for most to own a vehicle and it is the middle class that will be most affected by the scheme. The second is that the creamy layer of the society will find it easier to buy another car than take recourse to public transportation.

Sneha Manasa Vedula, a media professional who commutes daily from Noida to Gurugram presents an excellent perspective on the issue, “The first phase of the odd-even worked well primarily because people were ready to accommodate each other, share cabs etc. And there was also more availability of private buses as it was holiday time for schools. The Delhi metro had also increased its frequency.  In the second phase, people have become smart. Most of them avoided the scheme by reaching office before 8 a.m and leaving post 8p.m. This phase also saw the surge in cab pricing because of which people found it easier to pay the fine or arrange for two wheelers. The heat also added to the miseries of the public. In short, the public has turned out to be smarter than the government”.

What next?

The necessity of taking measures to curb the pollution levels in Delhi is beyond any debate. Unfortunately, the city is not yet prepared for a drastic measure like odd-even. The deplorable condition of Delhi’s public transport is one of the major reasons why this scheme will not work in the long run. Also the number of exemptions makes it clear that any positive impact will only be marginal and it is not worth the struggles the ordinary citizens are put through.

The need of the hour is to ensure seamless last mile connectivity to every commuter. This can be done only by interlinking multiple modes of public transportation and ensuring their frequency at regular intervals.

Ravisekhar Nair, a Supreme Court Lawyer shares his perspective on the issue, “The odd-even scheme is well intentioned but executed in an average manner. It will go a long way if done well. The government needs to disincentivize private transport and encourage build public transportation if results need to be seen”.

A step that the government can take in regard to discouraging the use of private transport is to emulate the idea of congestion charging as practiced in cities like Singapore and London.  There, the government taxes the use of roads in particular areas which makes private transport expensive. Also, differential tax rates for vehicles that are used on weekdays and weekends like in Singapore is a step that can be introduced in India. In addition to this, the buying of a second car should be made extremely costly by introducing extra charges.  To sum up, the cost of using a car should go beyond its maintenance and fuel costs. Only then, can the government expect people to voluntarily give up private transport.