Will Delhi let Arvind Kejriwal’s anti-pollution move succeed?https://indianexpress.com/article/blogs/driving-restrictions-in-delhi-a-great-idea-whose-time-has-not-come/

Will Delhi let Arvind Kejriwal’s anti-pollution move succeed?

Kejriwal govt’s decision to control vehicular pollution by allowing vehicles with odd and even numbers to ply on alternate days is laudable but a bit surprising too

Vehicular and industrial pollution, construction-related activities and road dust are some of the major factors behind the deteriorating air quality in the national capital. (Express Photo by Praveen Khanna)
Vehicular and industrial pollution, construction-related activities and road dust are some of the major factors behind the deteriorating air quality in the national capital. (Express Photo by Praveen Khanna)

The Arvind Kejriwal government’s decision to control vehicular pollution by allowing vehicles with odd and even numbers to ply on alternate days is laudable but a bit surprising too.

Even though it is not a new idea, it will generate a huge debate on tackling air pollution in Delhi. Road-space rationing is done in many parts of the world. In Beijing, it was done during the 2008 Olympics. Recently, it was implemented in Paris for some time. Even London has similar rules in some areas. A lot of Latin American countries have such green transport rules, too.

Kejriwal should be complimented for showing his commitment to improve Delhi’s environment. But many Delhites will note with regret that his idea is unlikely to be a reality, going by the reactions of political leaders from mainstream parties. Like all good ideas, it may ultimately be impractical to implement this one, too, in an unwieldy metro like Delhi which is divided on class, political and social lines.

Also, like all ideas on significant national issues such as casteism, communalism, economy, development, environment, language, books, films, arts and culture, this one, too, may end up dividing society and will be challenged at every platform. The powerful automobile industry is sure to object, too.

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Politically, socially and legally, there will be a number of people who will try their best to ensure that the idea fails. The other factor that may kill this move is the skewed nature of administration in the capital, given the power-divide between the Delhi government and the Centre.

Already, Union Minister of State for Home Kiran Rijiju has said that the Kejriwal government does not have the authority to decide on “transport”, which comes under the Central government. In the eyes of the BJP, Kejriwal is trying to grab the headlines when the
crucial climate change talks are on in France. But any open resistance to the idea will call the Centre’s bluff in Paris and Kejriwal will gain international attention — for a deserving cause.

BJP leader Kiran Bedi, a staunch rival of Kejriwal, has said that Delhi needs a composite plan to control pollution, where the government can work together with traffic police for proper implementation.

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Not surprisingly, Kejriwal was criticised severely by Delhi’s anti-AAP local leaders on news channels. They have alleged that the AAP is trying to divert attention from the huge 400 per cent hike in MLAs’ salaries.

Then again, some Delhi residents have asked why the Kejriwal government didn’t debate the move with the capital’s powerful residents welfare associations. Their question is: what happened to Kejriwal’s idea of “Swaraj” in which every government policy was to be discussed in each locality?

Delhi witnessed another smog-covered morning Thursday. (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)
Delhi witnessed another smog-covered morning Thursday. (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

However, it goes without saying that Kejriwal is smartly consolidating his core constituency by announcing an idea that will generate employment for the poor. For, with cars not being allowed on Delhi’s roads for 15 days every month, the upper middle class and rich would have to use taxis, autorickshaws, electric rickshaws and cycle rickshaws to reach Metro stations and bus stops. The Delhi government will also need to put in place more traffic police, more rickshaws, more buses, more Metro shuttles and a well-governed transport machinery.

The reactions of the Congress and BJP suggest that Kejriwal’s idea will not be implemented soon. And that even if it is implemented, it will open avenues of corruption and result in a kind of breakdown of road management. Already, people have started talking of fake number plates and “jugaad” with the police. The Delhi government, anyway, does not enjoy a good relationship with the police. So how will the two join hands to implement such an important anti-pollution measure?

Lastly, the study conducted by the Chinese government after the 2008 Olympics, when Beijing curbed cars from the city’s centre based on
registration number, showed that “even from a short-run perspective, the driving restriction policy is not as effective as intended in controlling car trips”.

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The study said its findings are consistent with those in other countries: that a driving restriction policy results only in short-term benefits. It noted that the public is more likely to break the rules at peak hours. Also, drivers in Beijing circumvented the restriction by purchasing multiple cars with odd and even plate numbers, or by covering or borrowing licence plates, the study found. The report said that Beijing responded to these “innovations” by increasing the penalty for rule-breakers and restricting automobile ownership through a licence plate policy.

Kejriwal’s idea may yet succeed, though, going by the report. “Put in place together, the driving restrictions and the licence plate policy seem to have been effective in curbing air pollution and traffic congestion, according to Beijing Municipal Commission of Transportation,” it states.

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Another measure suggested by the governemt is to hire school buses and private buses to meet public transport needs. (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

Yet, the problem lies in tendency of drivers to circumvent rules. The study on the Chinese experience with road-space rationing concludes: “It has been reported that these command-and-control restrictions policies have driven licence plate prices to a record high and increased demand, thus creating more problems, including heralding the birth of a new black market.” It warns: “In our view, these command-and-control policies can only alleviate the negative externalities generated by travel demand for a very short period of time, but they are unable to attack the root causes.”

In the long run, the study states that “the driving restriction policy or licence plate lottery policy can hardly constitute the silver bullet necessary to reduce traffic congestion or air pollution”. It states: “Beijing probably needs more market-oriented transportation
policies and a more comprehensive policy package (e.g., a combination of congestion tolls, expansion of the subway system, parking fees, fuel taxes, high-speed transit facilities, etc) to relieve this city from these negative externalities.”

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If such ideas failed in non-democratic China where the rulers are strict and the people have been conditioned to follow rules, how will Kejriwal’s idea to control air pollution survive in India?