(This article by me first appeared in Quartz on 11 January 2016.)
The odd-even experiment of car rationing was supposed to reduce pollution in Delhi by causing some inconvenience to car owners.
Since its implementation from Jan. 1, the Delhi government has cited reports to say pollution has indeed declined. Other studies and reports show it hasn’t. If there had been a huge decline in pollution, we wouldn’t need studies. We’d all be raving about how the air has suddenly become cleaner.
Question is, was pollution by cars the main source of pollution in the first place? We don’t know. Different studies say different things on the causes of pollution in Delhi.
In other words, the odd-even scheme has failed to make a noticeable impact on pollution in Delhi. But the scheme has been a political success for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
Who made Delhi buy cars?
Let us begin from the beginning. Over the last two decades, for most of which Delhi was ruled by Sheila Dikshit of the Congress party, the government encouraged cars and discouraged public transport. The number of buses and auto-rickshaws didn’t keep pace with the growing population, even as Delhi’s landscape was transformed by flyovers. The Delhi Metro, which ferries a small fraction of the commuters, just about prevented Delhi from becoming unlivable.
It is not just the rich in Delhi who need to buy a car. “In Delhi it’s difficult to live without a car,” is the constant refrain one hears. Most car owners pay through their noses to afford a car—they repay the bank loan, they pay for fuel, maintenance, taxes, and for the driver. Given the long distances, having a driver isn’t a matter of luxury for everyone.
A friend who drives every day from Gurgaon to central Delhi says he spends Rs 50,000 ($748) a month on fuel, his driver’s salary, and other costs. “If public transport took me everywhere without hassle, why would I do that?” he asks.
The AAP government has acknowledged that there needs to be a long-term investment in public transport.
A PR gimmick
Less than a year into power, the Kejriwal government was faced with the difficult task of tackling air pollution, which increased so much that Delhi has earned the tag of the world’s most polluted city. While the solutions were long-term, it needed to do something right here right now, in the smog-heavy winter season, to not risk its reputation as a party that brings about radical change.
The AAP has criticised the media for focusing on only one of its many measures to reduce pollution. But, if the media is to blame for focusing only on the odd-even scheme and not on, say, the government’s decision to shut down power plants, what explains the AAP government’s non-stop ad blitzkrieg about the odd-even scheme in newspapers, radio, and television?
When the scheme was announced, everyone thought it would be a mess. Given that public transport capacity was already brimming at the seams, inconvenienced car owners were expected to be angry at the government.
The shrewd AAP government was ready with a PR plan. It used persuasion, guilt, children, and everything it could, to shift the onus of reducing Delhi’s air pollution from the government to citizens. Instead of enforcing odd-even like an authoritarian diktat, it convinced people that this was their movement, their city, and their responsibility. “The people of Delhi are very good,” Kejriwal is heard saying in one radio ad, like a school teacher trying to motivate children to work harder.
Public transport didn’t explode partly because many were just about returning from their winter holidays, schools were closed, people shared cars, and most importantly, the Delhi Metro increased its rides by around 50%.
The Delhi government first forced us to get cars, and now it wants us to know we are the cause of air pollution, so we must keep the car at home for three days a week. And feel good about doing our bit to reduce pollution.
In truth, the odd-even scheme is as successful as the Narendra Modi government’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan to clean up India. A well-intentioned idea with mass appeal that hasn’t translated into visible change.
Pollution hasn’t declined, and car owners are happy that four of seven days in a week, they get to drive on less congested roads.
Poverty of imagination
Which begs the question, why could the Delhi Metro not have done this earlier? So many people who used to park their cars at the metro stations, and then take the train to work, no longer do so because the metro is so crowded. Sometimes you are packed in like sardines in a can. And it turns out, all this while, that the metro could have increased its train frequency. While we are at it, can we also ask why the Delhi Metro can’t run trains for a little longer than 11:30 pm?
That is a perfect example of the poverty of imagination when it comes to public transport in Delhi. The city’s public transport policy is always trying to catch up. Instead, if it creates over-capacity, we will see that more people will start switching over to it. In many of the best cities in the world, only the super-rich drive on the roads. Everyone else takes public transport because public transport is widespread and efficient.
If Kejriwal really meant business, he would have deregulated auto-rickshaw licenses to end the artificial scarcity of environment-friendly CNG autos in Delhi. Not doing so, likely for political reasons, reflects the same mindset of control that we see in the odd-even scheme.
But why should the government care now? The odd-even scheme has received wide acclaim, particularly from car owners, even though it hasn’t reduced pollution. Why should Kejriwal even bother about checking air pollution when he can use the Delhi government’s Rs550 crore ($82 million) advertising budget to take everyone for a ride?