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An odd solution

Published : Dec 13, 2015, 5:24 am IST
Updated : Dec 13, 2015, 5:24 am IST

No announcement has stirred New Delhi’s car- centric population as has chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s decision to restrict odd and even numbered cars on city roads on alternate days.

No announcement has stirred New Delhi’s car- centric population as has chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s decision to restrict odd and even numbered cars on city roads on alternate days. Citizens are angry, bewildered and aghast. The measure is drastic beyond doubt, especially for a citizenry used to the luxury of driving daily for work and leisure. Equally critical, however, is the need to urgently address the problem of the capital’s catastrophic air pollution levels.

The question is not in the chief minister’s motivation but on his sagacity. Is his car travel rationing plan wise, feasible or enforceable

Desperate Measure

Against the backdrop of scientific studies on air pollution in New Delhi, which suggest that cars contribute only a small part to overall pollution levels, chief minister Kejriwal appears to be acting more in desperation than with reason.

Take the case of construction activity in Delhi, which is ceaseless, especially in the more affluent colonies, with builders constantly pulling down and rebuilding houses. Civic agencies and public utilities too are constantly digging up roads and pavements and not restoring them. This kind of dynamic is rare in other world capitals where building regulations are strict and where retro-fitting rather than rebuilding is the norm. The amount of particulate matter all this generates is colossal. According to a much cited IIT-Kanpur report on the capital’s air quality, road and construction dust are the biggest contributors to harmful particulate matter (PM) in the air.

If this indeed be the case, then the first step the government ought logically to take is to drastically control construction activity, impose stringent curbs on rampant destruction and rebuilding, and enact rules for the carriage of debris and constriction material.

Admittedly, road dust and construction dust are only part of the problem and contribute mostly to the larger, and relatively less toxic, particulate matter in air. The most dangerous kind of particles are the ones that are 2.5 microns or smaller in diameter generated by fumes from vehicles, power plants, factories, crop burning and domestic cooking.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has been proactive in banning the open burning of waste, including garbage, leaves, plastic and crop residues and imposing a fine of `5,000 on violators. It has also banned registration of new diesel vehicles and licence renewal of diesel run vehicles which are more than 10 years old.

The NGT step is a timely response to the pollution crisis. Against the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendation of a maximum of 25 micrograms of 2.5 micron particles per cubic metre of air, the Indian capital often records levels ten times that. In other words, living in Delhi can be fatal.

But are cars the prime culprit Clearly not, says the Kanpur IIT report. Vehicular emissions constitute just 25 per cent to the overall 2.5 PM levels in summer and an average of 36 per cent in winter.

Of total vehicular emissions, trucks and two-wheelers generate most of the 2.5 PM type pollution while passenger cars account for just 14-15 per cent of that.

The math therefore suggests that cars account for less than 5.4 per cent of 2.5 PM pollution even at the worst of times. Yet, all Mr Kejriwal is doing is trying to bring down pollution by this segment.

Assuming he is successful, by curbing the movement of half the cars in the city he would have addressed just about 2.7 per cent of the problem.

Not surprisingly, the NGT is sceptical of the odd-even car rationing plan, which it said in a recent ruling is unlikely to achieve the “desired purpose.”.

Problem of Enforcement

The most ludicrous aspect of this entire car control exercise is the inordinate amount of police power it would require to enforce. It is unclear whether even the entire police of the capital would succeed in checking cars when they have proved inadequate to check rampant traffic violations. Statistics show that Delhi roads are the most dangerous in the country with the highest in terms of fatal accidents. According to government statistics, every week, two cyclists and one car rider dies in Delhi where traffic rules violation is rampant — in 2012 there were 329,000 cases of signal jumps, over 14,000 cases of drunken driving and 45,158 cases of over speeding.

Given the enormity of the task of regulating traffic by itself, is it possible that Delhi police will succeed in enforcing the odd-even number car policy Is it even fair to expect the police to check every car licence and peer into cars to see if the driver is a lone female Pampered Population

Delhi’s population is easily the most pampered in the country thanks to the Indian taxpayer who has generously contributed to ensure their capital has the country’s best infrastructure. The quality and coverage of the capital’s roads are far superior to those in other Indian cities.

Delhi’s population also has the highest spending capacity. The combination of good infrastructure and high disposable incomes has led to the capital amassing more cars (2.8 million as on March 31, 2015) than all the country’s other metropolises combined.

Delhiites travel vast distances in their cars every day and usually there is only one passenger in each car. Even middle class families here have more than one car; residential colonies in the city are choked with vehicles that have no place to park.

Public transport has languished and while the roads are jam packed it is not uncommon to see half empty buses plying on the streets. The Metro Rail is seen as a socially inferior mode of transport while efforts to cede more road space to buses and other forms of public transport have met with huge middle class opposition.

Delhi’s spoiled population could learn from their counterparts in other cities which have succeeded in solving environmental and related issues. In Singapore, for instance, car-pooling is mandatory and single drivers in peak time are fined. In London, even Members of Parliament travel by train and Metro; no social issues there. Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s odd solution to Delhi’s air pollution problem might not save the city’s lungs but it should serve as a wake-up call for an insouciant population.