(Full disclosure: I'm currently leading a task force on air pollution at the Delhi Dialogue Commission, a think tank of the Delhi government.)
The government of Delhi recently announced several measures to combat the hazardous levels of air pollution in the city. This includes emergency measures to reduce some of the eighty daily deaths from the current spike in cardiopulmonary cases 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 from Bharat IV to VI in just one year (a very bold move that leapfrogs Bharat V entirely, pulling in Bharat VI earlier than anyone had thought possible); 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 how many of the chatterati have focused on the alternate-day driving restrictions for a fortnight (based on the license plate’s even/odd last digit) to the exclusion of other measures. Is this because it’s the only measure that calls for a bit of sacrifice from them? They’re posting articles on why such rationing of road space won’t work, or how car owners will rush to buy cheap used cars that’ll be even more polluting. They’re conveniently ignoring the fact that this is a 15-day emergency measure, that no rich man is likely to buy another car for the 8 out of 15 days that he won’t be able to drive his primary car. The complainers seem to include: (1) 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; and (2) those who have no idea how bad Delhi’s air is right now and what it’s doing to our bodies.
Second, even if this measure became permanent at a future date (after due analysis and debate), it’ll likely happen after scaling up public transportation, in certain zones before others, and during certain hours. Designed right, it’ll accompany disincentives for diesel (which emits 7.5 times more PM 2.5 than petrol), reclaiming sidewalks for pedestrians, bike lanes, and a much higher cost of car ownership. For instance, we could charge an annual registration fee that rises steeply for two or more cars in a household (to prevent out-of-state registrations, it’d require the driver’s main residence to be the registered address), raise parking fees, limit and enforce 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, or the permitted days for a car could be shuffled every three months. More options might become possible in due course (when we have an up-to-date vehicle registration database), 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.
No doubt there be some problems in implementing the 15-day even/odd policy. 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. Even scientists do not agree on vehicular traffic’s contribution to total pollution but on a recent car free day in Delhi, pollution dropped considerably. More importantly, 55% of Delhi’s population lives within 500m 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 monopolize 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 4 million rides on buses, 2.5 million on the metro, taxis, auto-rickshaws, bicycles, on foot, etc. Why not see these 15 days 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’ll 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. Hey, 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 empathizing with those inconvenienced by this emergency measure. Because you know what? — 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 help 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 firewood, kerosene, and dung. This is a shame. But politics is the art of the possible, as I realized afresh watching the politicians and the bureaucrats at the Delhi secretariat leading up to this announcement. I think these measures will go a long way in raising public awareness of air pollution, reducing it in the short-term, and opening the door for the next round of difficult, unpopular, yet necessary initiatives.
NB: A lightly edited version of this piece appeared on Scroll.in.