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Cloaked in Smog, Delhi Initiates Odd-Even Experiment

January 13, 2016

By Mandakini Devasher Surie

Winter is unmistakable in New Delhi for the ubiquitous pall of smog – a noxious combination of fog and smoke – that blankets the city. On most days, it’s hard to see beyond a few metres, with buildings, roads, and highways partially, if not completely, obscured. In 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Delhi the most polluted city in the world, more so than Beijing, which famously enforced traffic restrictions to improve air quality during the 2008 Olympic Games. On average, pollution levels in Delhi are nearly 30 times higher than globally prescribed safety limits.

Delhi pollution scheme

Civil defence volunteers are posted at major intersections to help raise awareness about the odd-even scheme. Photo/Mandakini Surie

Levels of harmful ultra-fine particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, are on average 10 times higher in Delhi than the WHO prescribed limit. High levels of these particles, which can penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream, have been linked to decreased lung capacity, respiratory diseases, and cancer. Over the last six months, public concern about air quality in the capital has been at an all-time high, with sales of air purifiers and air masks through the roof and doctors advising children, the elderly, and the sick to stay indoors.

In late December, Delhi’s maverick chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, announced a slew of measures to curb rising air pollution in the city. These include restrictions on the movements of trucks and heavy vehicles in the city, improvement of public transport facilities, closure of polluting thermal power plants, and, most significantly, restrictions on the use of private cars. On January 1, the government launched an ambitious 15-day experiment to restrict the movement of privately owned cars on the basis of an odd-even number plate formula with odd cars allowed on odd days and even cars on even days. Certain categories of vehicles have been exempt during the trial period, including emergency service vehicles, cars with diplomatic plates, two-wheelers, commercial vehicles, taxis, auto-rickshaws, disabled drivers, and women traveling alone or with other women and children.

Recognizing that the initiative is as much about behavioral change as it is about curbing pollution, the government is conducting a major outreach campaign, roping in civic volunteers and mobilizing print, social media, and radio to encourage Delhiites to carpool, use public transport, and adhere to the odd-even traffic restrictions. Their efforts seem to be paying off, with most commuters adhering to the odd-even rule. On January 4, the first working day of the new year, the Delhi metro saw an 11 percent spike in the number of passengers, with an estimated 2.8 million people using the service. The initiative has some high-profile advocates, including the chief minister who has been seen carpooling to work, while other ministers and high court judges have used public transport or cycled to their offices. Law enforcement agencies have been strict about levying penalties on cars that don’t follow the norm which, so far, seems to have acted as deterrent. The move has been welcomed by many, with commuters posting pictures of congestion-free roads on Facebook and Twitter.

But the experiment is not without its detractors. The Delhi High Court has raised questions about the significant inconvenience to private car owners, the long list of exempt vehicles, the lack of sufficient public transport facilities, problems of last mile connectivity, and the long-term viability of enforcing the odd-even car system.

While the campaign has done much to raise public awareness, there is a question about the extent to which cars actually contribute to overall pollution levels in the city. Over the past few days, several newspaper reports have claimed that the initiative has had a limited effect on air pollution levels in the city. According to one report, pollution levels have even risen in some places. From January 1-5, parts of northeast and south Delhi recorded PM 10 levels (particles of diameter less than 10 microns) of 900 micrograms per cubic metre, nearly nine times higher than the safe limit. Critics argue that in addition to traffic restrictions, more stringent measures are needed to tackle other major – and potentially bigger – causes of pollution in the city, such as the rise in the use of diesel vehicles, burning of waste, dust from industrial and construction activities, thermal power plant emissions, as well as pollution from neighboring states due to agricultural waste burning.

Air pollution has been a problem in India’s capital city for decades, and successive governments have tried different strategies to tackle the problem. In the late 1990s, the Delhi Government introduced compressed natural gas (CNG) buses and relocated a number of polluting industries outside the city limits. In the early 2000s, the government initiated steps to modernize Delhi’s public transport system, introducing high-capacity, low-emission buses and construction of a metro rail system. For a time, these measures proved effective, but as a growing megacity with a population of 16 million and nearly 8.4 million registered vehicles, these measures have simply not been enough.

Given this scenario, the Delhi government’s odd-even experiment comes as a welcome initiative, and while its impact may not be immediately clear, the 15-day drive has been effective in raising public awareness about air pollution and rallying Delhiites to play a more active role in tackling pollution in the city. Undoubtedly, more needs to be done, including more research on specific causes of pollution in the city. But with a staggering 12 Indian cities in the WHO’s top 20 most polluted worldwide, such an experiment is definitely worth a shot.

Mandakini Devasher Surie is The Asia Foundation’s senior program officer in India. She can be reached at mandakini.surie@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: India
Related programs: Economic Opportunity, Environmental Resilience, Strengthen Governance
Related topics: Urbanization

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