Why Odd-even is Odd for India



Countless policies, dynamism of innovative measures and intention of becoming a lion drives the Indian economy  today. In the process, we are talking of development and trying to ape some of the success stories of the west, but without assessing its feasibility. It’s like sowing rice on an arid land and cactus in marshes.

The west is talking of research and development for better battery range for clean fuel cars, battery charging stations, battery swap stations etc. They have charging points in offices and public places and therefore are talking about implementing a phase out of fuel powered cars. India is aping the west in the phase out ban but it’s aping without grounds.

Recently, the national capital came up with a “pollution control” measure called the Odd-even where either only odd or only even numbered vehicles were allowed to ply on a particular day. The measure was implemented twice on a pilot basis. First phase did present some decline in pollution levels while the second phase showed a rise. Net result therefore is not perceptible improvement.

Kanika Kalra, Urban Transport Expert with the Institute of Urban Transport, Delhi, explains that there is a technical issue with the measure itself. This is not a pollution control measure but a demand-management measure. Many countries have used it and it has proved fruitful. So, why did it not work in India? There are many reasons.

First this is not a pollution control measure and is a short term measure generally used to level the small discrepancies in achieving a set goal. Second, all commercial numbers were exempted from the measure despite the fact that these commercial vehicles are more polluting as they rarely care about maintenance.

The first time when the measure was implemented, schools which are major bus running institutions, were closed and as such, their entire fleet was off road while during the second avatar of the move, those buses were on roads, resulting in truer assessment of the change in ground realities brought about by the initiative.

An anti-pollution control effect triggered by this initiative was that people started buying a second car and on an average 1,200 secondhand cars were sold each day during  the  15 day trial. Second hand cars are even more polluting, thus defeating the whole purpose of the measure.

The worst is that the government does not want to accept that it was a mistake. Statements that followed the failure report was that there were burnings at the land filling sites that increased the pollution level. This was refuted by all as this is a routine phenomenon. Second reason they cited was that there was waste burning in Punjab and that’s why the pollution level did not dip. Here experts question that if some event in Punjab can affect pollution levels in Delhi, how we expect results from a local solution like odd-even.

Another measure that was taken recently was banning diesel cabs in Delhi. Diesel is one of the major pollutants but so is CNG. Diesel emits Sulphur and Carbon Monoxide while CNG adds to the particulate matter and both are equally harmful.

Most of the automobile giants have invested a lot of money in manufacturing these vehicles and still more on research and development for making these vehicles. If we see the recent trend, most of the high powered passenger vehicles are diesel powered and nearly all of the SUV sales come from diesel engine variants. One very strong reason for the trend is that diesel sells cheaper and gives good mileage and India is an economy driven market. It is no wonder therefore, that over 45 per cent of the cars are diesel powered.

The automobile industry is a big source of revenue and the manufacturers have clout enough to influence policies. As such, government policies have to be very strong to change the scenario but policies alone cannot fix anything. We need infrastructure.

“We are inviting foreign investors to make in India but what alternate fuel do we have to offer? How will the system sustain. Do we have enough CNG supply for the country? There is no sufficient supply in Delhi, let alone the other parts of the nation. Have you ever seen a CNG station where there is no queue?” asks Kalra.

Taxi and auto drivers say that if for some reason they need to refill their tanks in the middle of working hours, half of their day’s income has to be sacrificed as at any given point of time, the stations have long queues.

“To beat this loss, many vehicles are illegally running on LPG cylinders,” says an auto driver from Bihar. This is not because they are willfully doing it; it is because they are forced to do it due to nonavailability of CNG.

Often we talk of electric vehicles but where are the charging points? These few thousand e-rickshaws on roads today find it difficult to charge their batteries because of which the owners have to depend on personal electric connection. If lakhs of such vehicles come on road, where will they charge?

A couple of years back there was a time when many people had taken to electric cars and motorbikes very enthusiastically but the tempo died off very soon because of the missing charging points.

“If you go to Singapore, every office and parking has charging  points. It pushes up the demand for the vehicle as nobody wishes to spend on petrol. When this demand ratchets up, the automobile industry  on its own shift from fuel powered vehicles to electric powered vehicles.

The problem, therefore, is not feasibility; it is availability. So you can ban hydrocarbon fueled cars only when you provide equally viable alternative. A small step of banning diesel cabs led to a great hue and cry and it had to be called off. The problem is not adherence to any law or ban, the problem is where is the alternative? According to reports, over 5,000 people went unemployed following the ban; the hue and cry is obvious.

Banning all ‘bad’ practices one fine day is not the solution; banning ‘bad’ after provisioning for a ‘good’ alternative is the right way. Demand management works only when you provide alternatives. It is stupid to send cars off road when you do not have enough buses on the roads or enough number of metro coaches.

Yes, a number of countries including Norway, Canada, and many others have taken steps towards phasing out hydrocarbon fuel powered vehicles but we cannot just follow suit without considering the ground work they did before taking measures.

In almost all of these countries, there are enough sources of alternate fuel; there are charging points, CNG stations and dedicated lanes for cyclists and pedestrians. In India you find none. Pedestrians do not exist in the traffic plans at all. The footpaths are refuge areas that are used for everything but walking.

“My office is around two kilometers from my place but I cannot walk down even if I want. I tried but couldn’t. The roads and the environment are not congenial to pedestrians. I had to reluctantly quit and take my car for this short distance,” shares Kalra.

The basics are missing and so are the homework and ground work before taking any remedial step. There are many companies that have launched a number of CNG models with good mileage but talking to about 50 people, 45 said no just because they do not want to stand in long queues for hours or be stranded in any part of the road because there are no CNG stations at frequent spots like fuel stations.

Another very important and basic factor that contributes towards ‘flop’ plans by the authorities concerned is that seldom there is a planner involved in the planning process.

odd-even2“If you take a look at the National Urban Policy, it has sufficient provisions for a good transport system but the problem is that you do not have experts who have an understanding of how to bring the provisions on ground,” says Kalra.

She explains that she has been training planning department officials for years and whenever she asks if they have planners in their teams, the answer is mostly no and in very few cases where there is one, by chance, he or she is a town planner and not a transport planner. “It’s like asking a doctor to stitch clothes. It’s that big a mismatch,” she adds.

The departments do not have an understanding that there is a need for a transport planner; they have not understood the importance of transport planners in our cities. They only hire engineers. A town planner can make the master plan but he or she cannot decide the width of the road or the placement of the roads, foot paths or metro tracks, explains Kalra.

However, the dire need to improve our transport system is slowly dawning upon governments. Many cities like Bhopal, Kochi, Ahmedabad, and Surat have shown remarkable improvement when it comes to transport system. Rest of the country, however, is still in a slumber.

A genuine difficulty in development is that there are too many departments and too much overlapping of responsibilities, not to mention the hair splitting of responsibilities in the first place. Only in Delhi, in a few kilometers of roads the land can belong to DDA, DTC, NHAI, and DMRC, Railways, Transport department, the three different municipal corporations and several others.

Often there is a plan but it does not get implemented as there is no clarity on which stretch of land or which part of the job belongs to whom. Kalra shares that there is a stretch of road in front of her office near Anand Vihar metro station in Delhi that has been lying unrepaired for last four years. Each time she approaches an authority, she is told that it is not under their jurisdiction.

Such conundrum is symptomatic of our working style. Instead of planning whole hog, apportioning the job to respective departments and then sequencing the work properly, we plan in watertight compartments, resulting in the mess that we are in. Entire management of vehicular planning, transport planning and environmental protection has worked alone in the country, because of which none has been able to achieve success.

The buck passing and sloppy excuses for own failures must end if we really have to make any headway in pollution control or traffic congestion. In a fractured and animus driven polity like ours, that sounds like a pipedream. But great realities have often emerged out of dreams. So, instead of trying frivolous ideas like odd-even and diesel cab ban, we need to work on the basics of urban transport planning, which is demand and supply oriented and which reduces the need for private vehicle usage. Perhaps a great deal of pressure on roads will be relieved if we could just keep footpaths for pedestrian and create bicycle lanes in cities. That will do more wonder than the mumbo jumbo that we keep seeing frequently.