Needs more time: The Delhi CM may extend the odd-even initiative as a necessary step to both lower pollution and emphasise the need for change in how the city's residents travel | Photo: ProKerala

Odd-even: a necessary exercise that needs further study

As the Delhi government’s third iteration of “odd-even” comes to a close, preliminary results have been positive. The government expects air pollution to come down by 15% and compliance with the scheme this year is better than in 2017.

Detractors may be quick to point out that the results are preliminary, and that the dip in the city’s pollution cannot be attributed to odd-even alone. Both remarks are true, but it’s easy to forget that better compliance is indicative of greater public acceptance of two realities – that Delhi NCR has a serious air quality problem, and that personal convenience must be sidelined if the problem is to be reigned in. Getting car owners to agree on the latter is no mean feat.

However, the scheme needs to do better.

Winter air quality over the NCR has progressively declined over the last decade. On Nov. 3rd, air quality in the capital was reported at an unbearable 999. Hospitals reported a sharp spike in cases of respiratory illnesses, anti-pollution masks were handed out by the thousands and government offices were ordered to stagger their work hours to lessen the number of employees driving to work at the same time. So severe was the smog over the city that even the relatively cleaner CNG-fitted vehicles were put under restrictions.

Yet, the extent of challenge is enormous and needs sustained action. Air quality is Delhi NCR is affected by vehicular emissions, emissions from small-scale industries, power plants and brick kilns around its perimeter, dust from sweeping of roads and construction activities and open burning of road waste. In the winter, stubble burning in neighboring states amplifies the pollution load several times over.

When considered together, the issues present a nightmarish challenge for the best of administrations by pitting livelihoods against lives. No single factor can be wiped out with a single stroke as it presents logistical challenges and could disrupt daily life for millions of residents. Clamping down on traffic was thus an inconvenient but only feasible measure.

Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has made a sound suggestion in saying that the exercise could be extended. The idea is to encourage car owners to move towards using more public transport – for which the government roped in 500 extra buses.

The intent is clear – the manner in which Delhi NCR moves must be overhauled to clean it up.  A long-term strategy must encompass solutions that move more people and are low on emissions. There are model examples to learn from, such as the efficient multi-modal public transit system of Shanghai, which allows commuters to reach destinations quickly by combining cycling, ferries, local trains and even moving walkways. The system is so inexpensive and well designed the most users find it difficult to justify driving a car.

The underground metro rails of Seoul and Paris employ a similar emphasis on low-carbon mass mobility. Even in Mumbai, local trains ferry the bulk of daily passengers from all walks of life as it’s simply a faster and cheaper option to driving. While in Delhi, the Metro has become an increasingly cost-effective solution for intra-city travel.  

Another notable initiative this time was that the administration asked ride-hailing services like Ola and Uber to refrain from surge pricing. Whether or not it led to more residents pooling together will be clear after more data comes in, but shared mobility is another solution that needs to be promoted. The concept is well suited to our congested urban spaces where mobility is a necessity but car parking and maintenance is an expendable hassle.

Shared mobility also lends itself well to electric vehicles. When powered through renewables, they are a truly green alternative, and both the Centre and the states have devised policies to spur their uptake. Delhi’s EV policy is also due soon and promises to be the most innovative.

Thus, even though odd-even is one of the several solutions on the table, its targeted and actual behavioral impact on car owners makes it worth testing further. Whether it comes back stricter next time or the current scheme is extended immediately after November 15th remains to be seen. But for now, it’s a well-meaning exercise that is needed to tackle one of the biggest challenges to public health.