Delhi’s government has been under pressure for presiding over a building public health crisis due to the deteriorating air quality in the capital. The Delhi High Court has observed that life in the city is akin to “living in a gas chamber”, and the National Green Tribunal criticised the government’s approach to the problem. Yet, the Kejriwal government’s announcements on Friday — with new curbs to be imposed on vehicular movement from January 1 as their centrepiece — must be applauded as a brave move in its own right. Having won a large mandate, the AAP is now leveraging it to attempt an ambitious break from pollution as usual. This move could have a wider resonance. Delhi may be a small stage, but the constant spotlight on it makes it one of the most important staging grounds for the new project and initiative. The Kejriwal government’s package — ranging from the shutdown of a coal-fired plant in Badarpur, to a promise to make an early switch to Euro VI emission norms — could become a bold new template for governance in the city.
Having taken this step, the government cannot afford to stop there. If the odd-even switcheroo — cars with odd and even licence plates will be allowed on the roads every alternate day — is to be a success, public transport systems, especially last-mile connectivity, must see quick and dramatic improvements. Similar road space rationing has been implemented in several other cities in the world to mitigate air pollution, including Bogota, Mexico City and Beijing. Many of these cities offer reliable, safe and
efficient mass transportation options, but even they have seen citizens circumvent the restrictions in a variety of ways. In Mexico City, for instance, after residents began buying second cars to get around the ban, carbon monoxide levels rose by 13 per cent.
To ensure that there are concrete gains from this licence-plate driving ban, the Delhi government must concentrate on beefing up bus services and devising cheap, clean ways for people to get from metro stations to their homes or places of work. Strict enforcement will also be necessary — the ban will do no good if it is consistently flouted the way other traffic rules are.
The experience of other cities also suggests that measures such as the creation of low-emission zones — areas that older, more polluting vehicles cannot enter — and congestion pricing encourage drivers to upgrade to cleaner cars and shift to public transport. At the same time, other sources of pollution must also be looked at. Vehicles belch toxic gases and particles, but so do industrial plants, and garbage disposal remains a problem. Delhi’s last attempt to clean its air at the turn of the century, by mandating that all public vehicles shift to CNG, worked. But a failure to build on it meant the gains were frittered away. That mustn’t happen again.