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Delhi's odd-even formula: The challenges ahead

December 29, 2015 10:29 IST

Similar traffic restrictions in other cities did not see a significant improvement in air quality only because car owners begin making more trips during their unrestricted periods.

The other apprehension, as seen in other cities, is that residents have bought secondhand cars, using the other number plate so that they can continue to drive to their work place, thereby defeating the very purpose of this scheme.

As Delhi's odd-even scheme takes off this coming fortnight, Rashme Sehgal reports on what may lie ahead.

Delhi trafficDelhi is all set to embark on an ambitious odd-even numbered scheme for all private vehicles between January 1 and 15.

The aim of this exercise, according to the Aam Aadmi Party state government, is to ensure that half of Delhi's 8.8 million vehicles remain off the roads on each day this coming fortnight.

This, Delhi's Transport Minister Gopal Rai believes, will help bring down vehicular pollution by half, thereby reducing the overall pollution levels in the city.

Delhi is the most polluted city in the world. Its 20 million population is exposed every day to over 153 micrograms per cubic metre of 2.5 particulate matter -- between 15 to 20 times higher than what is desirable according to the World Health Organisation.

The situation is so alarming that the Delhi high court asked the state government to take strict measures to reduce pollution levels. The AAP government, led by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, took the first tentative steps by declaring that the 22nd of every month would be a car-free day.

The four car-free days in parts of the city saw pollution levels drop by almost 40 per cent, and this was taken as a signal to introduce the odd-even formula, which will allow vehicles with odd numbers to ply between 8 am and 8 pm on one day and even number vehicles to ply on the next.

This scheme has been tried in several cities -- Beijing, Bogota, Mexico City, Paris and Sao Paulo. The Delhi government has pointed out that the city's 20 lakh (2 million) registered cars presently feed a population of 20 million people. But these cars occupy prime space on the roads from 8 am up to practically 8 pm, leaving little space for other vehicles, especially public transport.

Minister Rai points out while a bus can accommodate up to 80 people, the same amount of people would require 80 cars, thereby requiring so much of road space.

"We strongly support this emergency action," says Dr Anumita Roychowdhury, Executive Director, Centre for Science and Environment. "We need to take strong steps to bring down pollution levels and this can only happen by intensifying the public transport system."

Delhi plans to buy more buses, but these can be used more effectively only if congestion on the city's roads is reduced. In Bangalore, a bus plies more than 270 km per day. In Chennai, a bus plies nearly 300 km a day. In Delhi, a bus presently plies less than 200 km a day.

Once traffic volumes decrease, the carrying capacity of the public transport system will automatically increase, believes Dr Roychowdhury.

The Centre for Science and Environment, which monitors pollution levels across the country, believes the Delhi state government should have insisted on taking two wheelers off roads as well.

"They (two-wheelers) comprise 54 per cent of Delhi's vehicular fleet and making them follow the odd-even formula would have helped reduce pollution levels further," says Dr Roychowdhury, adding that the levying of the green tax on the 115,000 trucks (Rs 1,400 per small truck and Rs 2,600 per large truck plying through the city per day) has already seen a drop of truck entry by 30 per cent, thereby helping the fight against pollution.

Delhi Transport Minister Rai believes the mindset of Delhi residents needs to change with top priority being given to pedestrians, then to cyclists followed by public transport with cars being placed at the bottom of the list.

Transport experts feel such an experiment can be a success only if last mile connectivity is increased with greater provisions being made for cyclists and by increasing metro feeder buses as is the case around the world. Kejriwal has been actively promoting the use of bicycles and is seen cycling on car-free days.

Other experts maintain that similar traffic restrictions in other cities did not see a significant improvement in air quality only because car owners begin making more trips during their unrestricted periods.

The other apprehension, as seen in other cities, is that residents have bought secondhand cars, using the other number plate so that they can continue to drive to their work place, thereby defeating the very purpose of this scheme.

"We will see pollution levels go down by 20, 25 per cent under this scheme," believes Gopal Rai.

Union Roads and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari has promised to speed up the construction of peripheral roads so that trucks and other vehicles can bypass Delhi without entering the city.

Experts believe these roads should have been built five years ago, but were delayed. Gadkari told this correspondent he is pushing for an early completion of the eastern and western peripheral highways and is confident these will be completed within one year.

While Gopal Rai believes the success of the odd-even scheme is directly linked to more commuters switching over to bicycles, town planners point out that the road expansion in Delhi has been skewed with no bicycle and pedestrian paths constructed on any of the new roads or flyovers constructed during Shiela Diskhit's chief ministership.

Gopal Rai has identified eight roads with separate bicycles lanes. But the state government will need to build over 200 bicycle stands near metro stations and bus stops where citizens can park their bicycles and collect it on their way back by swiping a card, as is done in other countries.

"The eyes of the entire country are focused on Delhi," says Dr Randeep Guleria, a pulmonary specialist at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. "The worsening pollution has seen a spiralling of heart and respiratory problems for Delhi citizens with the young and aged population being the worst hit."

"Recent studies confirm that increasing numbers of Delhi citizens face chronic inflammation of the lungs and PM 2.5 has been found to be a major risk factor in heart diseases," adds Dr Guleria.

Doctors like Dr Guleria say the state government has yet to come up with measures including imposing curbs on construction activities which throw up dust and curbing the use of diesel generators at homes and offices.

The other key policy thrust is to ensure that Euro 4 norms for automobiles (which is the norm in Delhi and other metros) is implemented throughout the country. The petroleum ministry is willing to provide Euro 4 fuel throughout the country within the next four months and plans to meet the Euro 6 deadline for vehicles by 2020.

Dr Roychowdhury, who has worked closely with the Delhi government in giving direction to the odd-even formula, believes state governments must start charging a congestion tax, do away with cheap parking in marketplaces and increase the road tax.

State governments dither about such measures because increased taxation and a rise in fuel prices can result in electoral losses in coming years.

Some of the most polluted cities in the world -- Gwalior, Ahmedabad, Lucknow, Raipur, Surat -- are in India. If Delhi's odd-even scheme is a success, the administrations in these cities could emulate the national capital's example and tackle pollution on a war footing.

Rashme Sehgal