Mahatma Gandhi had said, “Action in the absence of knowledge can be dangerous and worse than no action at all”. This sage advice is ignored by most Indians. In the face of a serious pollution problem prevalent in most Indian cities, especially the smaller towns, we pretend that it is only the people in Delhi who are suffering. And then, without a serious debate about the evidence available before us, or indeed, without any cost-benefit analysis, we want to implement drastic solutions.
We are now preparing for the eventuality that on any given day, only odd- or even-numbered cars will operate in Delhi. Before such a policy is implemented, it would be logical to ask the following questions:
Do we know how many cars and motorcycles registered in Delhi are on the roads every day? Has any city succeeded with such a policy? Are we sure how much each pollutant will be reduced if this policy is implemented? What is the proportion of vehicles that will have to be exempted by this law? Do we have the technology and the policing capability to enforce this law?
Unfortunately, the Delhi government and most of the NGOs pushing for this policy do not have a clue about the actual numbers. The first auto fuel policy committee, led by R.A. Mashelkar, published a report in 2002, which showed that the actual number of motorcycles and
cars active on Delhi roads was about 65 per cent of the registered numbers. From the political establishment to the media to the researchers, everyone ignored this aspect of the report. In 2013 and 2014, researchers from IIT-Delhi conducted similar surveys in Delhi, Rajkot and Visakhapatnam and discovered that the actual number of vehicles operating in these cities was about 50 to 55 per cent of the
registered vehicles. These results have been published in special reports, international journals and newspapers. The Central and state governments were also informed, but no action was taken. It appears that because of the one-time registration system, no vehicle ever leaves the registration records.
The studies also indicated that the car and motorcycle fleet in Delhi was one of the youngest, had one of the highest fuel efficiency values, and was driven for a shorter distance annually compared to those in European cities. The most recent census data indicates that, in Delhi, only 13 per cent of the work trips use cars as compared to Singapore where the share of cars is more than 30 per cent — and that is in spite of the excellent public transport facilities and hard restrictions on car ownership in Singapore.
It is no one’s case that car-use should not be minimised in Delhi. But in order to do so, we must first know the facts as well as the international policy experience to better evaluate our options.
An impression has been created that many cities have been successful with such policies. The fact is that not a single city in the world has succeeded in enforcing the odd-even policy over any length of time. Beijing is the most often discussed example. But even in China, this policy was successfully implemented only around the Olympic Games. Only a few cities in the developing world have experimented with this idea — and all have failed. The results of the policy were unintended. For instance, it led to increased sales of motorcycles and cheaper, used cars by people wanting to own both odd and even numbered vehicles. This resulted in more accidents and increased pollution. It also led to a greater use of false number plates. Moreover, everyone demanded exemptions, including the elderly, the disabled and even those claiming to have an important occupation, like doctors.
We do not even have a reliable estimate about the expected reduction in the small particulate matter (PM2.5) as a result of this policy. As of now, there are only two scientific studies that give us somewhat reliable estimates for the proportion of PM2.5 emitted by the transport vehicles in Delhi.
S. Guttikunda’s modelling studies estimate this to be less than 20 per cent of the total. Pallavi Pant and her associates conducted a study around the heavily travelled Mathura Road and estimated the contribution of the road traffic exhaust to be 18.7 per cent and 16.2 per cent in the summer and winter seasons respectively.
A thought exercise can be conducted by taking an exaggerated version of these estimates at 30 per cent. In most cities where studies have been done, freight and delivery vehicles contribute at least 30 per cent. These will have to be exempted and so will all the taxis, emergency vehicles and other municipal services. This would mean that less than half of the vehicles polluting the city would be affected (15 per cent of pollution) by such an odd-even policy. Of these, half of the vehicles will be allowed on the road and, therefore, the most optimistic estimate of PM2.5 reduction will be around 7 per cent. We also know that when vehicle-use is restricted, other vehicles travel more every day. This leaves us with an estimated pollution reduction of less than 5 per cent.
However, we do have an enormous public health problem at hand and people want something to be done. The global evidence suggests that the best policy is restricting car-use. This can be achieved by enforcing stricter parking restrictions at all locations, including offices, and by making people pay for the parking. This should be accompanied by lifting the restrictions on the auto-rickshaws and taxis plying in the NCR region.
In addition, all taxes affecting taxi and auto-rickshaw operations should be replaced by an engine-size-based annual pollution tax imposed on all private vehicles and used, in turn, to fund public transport. The above measures will lead to a greater public demand for the provisioning of safer and more convenient public transport facilities. In turn, it would also incentivise walking and bicycling in the city, and cleaner air.
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