Odd-even scheme returns to Delhi

After the success of the first phase, the Delhi government is applying the policy of limiting car traffic by odd-even license plate numbers on odd-even days, once again
<p>A civil defence volunteer holds a placard in new Delhi (Image: Bi Xiaoyang/Xinhua/Alamy)</p>

A civil defence volunteer holds a placard in new Delhi (Image: Bi Xiaoyang/Xinhua/Alamy)

The second phase of odd-even – one of the world’s biggest experiment to combat air pollution – is back in the capital city of India. The Delhi government had advertised heavily after the completion of the first phase of the scheme in the beginning of this year. In a series of public consultations led by the members of the legislative assembly (MLAs), polls through mobile phones and feedback through websites they had found that 84% of the respondents were in favour of continuing the scheme “as soon as possible”.

With citizen involvement considered a key factor behind the success of the first phase, Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi, is often on radio these days trying to mobilize people to follow the pilot scheme. He said, “The second phase of the odd-even scheme is very important. If it turns out to be successful, we are thinking of implementing it for 15 days every month.”

For the government of Delhi, introducing the much widely advertised odd-even plan was a big political gamble, especially because the capital has the maximum number of car users in the country. Earlier efforts, such as the creation of a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, failed. The creation of this new system, which would limit the use of private cars, was also seen as an extremely difficult and risky decision.

Citizen participation was a key factor in success [image courtesy Delhi government]
Citizen participation was a key factor in success [image courtesy Delhi government]
The success, therefore, of phase one of ‘odd-even’ that was introduced in January this year, came as a surprise.  The city saw an unexpectedly high level of compliance.  A total of 9,140 fines were issue for violating the odd-even rule during the period. Given that Delhi has 2.8 million private cars and jeeps, this amounted to less than 0.5% of total private vehicles.

See: Delhi’s odd-even scheme inspires, even with mixed results

Under the scheme, from April 15, cars will be selectively allowed to ply on alternate days depending on odd and even numbered plates. Cars with odd numbered license plates will be allowed to ply on odd-numbered days, and cars with even numbered license plates will be allowed to ply on even numbered days. Vehicles running on compressed natural gas (CNG), two-wheelers, and women driven cars will be exempt. Parents dropping their children to school will also be exempt.

The whole experiment of car rationing was undertaken as a desperate measure to cut air pollution and traffic congestion in the city. According to a WHO survey of 1600 cities, Delhi is among the world’s most polluted city in terms of air quality. And in a study found in 2015, it was found that over one third children failed in lung capacity test in Delhi.

After the end of the first phase on January 15 this year, the Delhi government said there was a drop of 30% in the air pollution due to the scheme. Other independent researchers gave mixed results, and the Delhi government recognised that the policy had more impact on congestion than pollution. This, though, was considered a major achievement in itself. Lower congestion also meant that the bus system ran much more efficiently and smoothly than before. It also encouraged more number of people to use buses.

According to the government, an estimated 5.3 million people commuted by buses during January 1-15 fortnight, up from 4.7 million earlier. During the duration of the first phase buses which used to just manage 160 kilometres a day, much less than the daily target of 200, covered 220 kilometres per day.

Similar car rationing schemes have been tried out in at least 15 cities grappling with air pollution across the world including Beijing, Mexico City, Paris and Bogota. In Paris, it was tried out just for a day in March 2014 because the pollution level dropped to the desired level the next day. But in Mexico City, car rationing was introduced in late 1980s when it was counted as the world’s most polluted city. Cars were banned one day per week only depending on the number plates. Initially the experiment showed a drop of about 11% drop in air pollution, but the benefits were lost since people started purchasing more cars depending on the numbering of the number plates.

See: How Mexico City slashed air pollution levels by half

But back in Delhi, while odd-even is back on popular demand, the second phase is starting at the peak of Indian summer, with temperatures already reaching 40 C and this could lower the enthusiasm of the citizens. The previous experiment was done during the winter season which is also the time when the pollution levels go critically high.

Richa Chaudhary, a resident of Delhi said, “I think they could have started the second phase in July considering the weather. It is impossible to walk on roads in this heat especially because Delhi roads don’t have shady trees. Last time I really enjoyed odd-even plus it was winter so I could walk in the city but I might have to hire a cab this time.

Sanjay Kapoor, another resident of Delhi, who supports the idea in principle, said, “It felt good one time and schools were shut in January. But if this thing becomes permanent, then I would be forced to buy two cars, because I have field work and am constantly on the move due to nature of my work.”

However, Anumita Roychowdhury, the head of the air pollution department at the Centre for Science and Environment, said it is important to go in for the second-phase, “Piloting of temporary emergency action (odd-even) has to be done along with medium-term and long-term measures such as augmenting public transport, putting stringent parking policies in place, creating walkways, cycle tracks and improving last-mile connectivity. This is a way of piloting your preparedness because you have to be ready with the emergency action in the coming winter.”

On being questioned if Delhi should continue with the odd-even policy even though there is no clarity on its impact on air pollution when it was first tested in January, Roychowdhury said, “That’s not the way to look at it. It is not easy to control air pollution. [The odd even scheme] is no magic bullet but you need to be doing everything. In fact we found that due to different strategies including odd-even, the peak of pollution level slowly started shaving off in the graph. The tapering begins like that.”

Taking a cue from Delhi, Gurgaon, an expanding satellite city of Delhi NCR region, has announced that it will also implement its own odd-even scheme for a week. After the success of the first phase of the scheme, the Bombay High Court had also asked if the scheme could be implemented in Mumbai. Fortune magazine also named Arvind Kejriwal as one of its 50 inspirational leaders – the only Indian on the list – for piloting through the initial scheme. The initial success has, therefore, generated quite a bit of enthusiasm, and that enthusiasm will be necessary for the government to successfully pilot through this second phase, despite the brutal heat and lack of adequate transport infrastructure.