Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Unsustainability of the Odd-Even Scheme
By Jayati Narain

Image 1: Delhi roads during rush hour traffic.

For the first 15 days of January 2016, Delhi roads have been undergoing what is globally known as road space rationing. Commonly referred to as the odd-even car scheme. This has been a drastic move by the AAP government to take action against the alarming pollution levels in the city.

The scheme states that on odd dates cars with license plate numbers ending in an odd digit may ply, and on even number dates cars with license plate numbers ending in an even digit may ply.  A number of details have been given as to how the scheme is to function, action against violators and those exempt from the scheme. The ultimate goal of the scheme is to reduce the total number of cars on the road, thus bringing down the pollution level.

While the scheme has been criticized from many quarters, many citizens of Delhi have welcomed the move. Much of the acceptance around the scheme has been along the lines of ‘at least something is being done.’ Such a statement is extremely telling of the urgency felt in needing to address the air pollution and the complete lack of action by previous governments. However, the relief over action being taken is clouding the most important question of how successful such a scheme will be.

Unfortunately based on the current situation the long-term success of such a move seems rather doubtful. This can be said looking at the causes of pollution in Delhi, the lack of a supporting public a number of ways in which the scheme can be circumvented.

Several studies have shown that the air pollution in Delhi is caused by a number of factors, not just from the emissions from private vehicles. Larger contributing factors are from the industries and brick kilns surrounding the city. Along with the burning of wood fires in the winter. Given the level of pollution in Delhi, even making a dent in a single contributing factor seems worthwhile. In the short term this may be the case, but if the larger causes are not addressed pollution levels in Delhi will only continue to rise.

Image 2: Delhi roads during the odd even scheme

More then effecting the pollution level, such a move has had a noticeable impact on congestion level in the city. Another much needed and welcome change for Delhi traffic. But, as the development of wider roads and flyovers has shown, more road space leads to more cars. Those willing to invest in a second car (as many seem to be), or add to growing license plate black market (again, as many seem to be), will now prefer to be on the road. This is also linked to a lack of investment in public transport.

This is probably the biggest problem with the odd-even scheme. A 15 day scheme like this is a great way of pushing people to use public transport and experience an alternative mode of transport, they may not have use regularly. However, little has been done in this regard. The government has been promoting carpooling, ride share apps and has added school buses to the regular DTC fleet (possible, due to schools being on Winter Break). Compared to many cities in India, Delhi has a good public transport system. But the current metro and bus infrastructure was inadequate even before this scheme was started. With increased ridership in the next 15 days, this will only be further exaggerated. The need for investment in public transport and pedestrian infrastructure is crucial to the development of any city. Such infrastructure has benefits beyond pollution and congestion reduction.

Much of the discussion surrounding the success of the scheme, including that by the Delhi government, is about compliance rather than long-term change. There has been a call for a shift in the attitude and behaviour of Delhi-wallahs. The effect of appeals such as these will have little impact, as the behaviour of the Delhi-wallah’s is not very different from that of citizens of any other city. People will continue to do what makes the most sense for them. While this may come of as selfish, it is also rational. If behaviour changes are required they should be brought about by systemic and structural changes, rather simply emotional appeals. While these appeals may work in the short term, their long-term effects are negligible. Structural changes force a change in behavior simply because it is more rational. Thus, if a car driver is inconvenienced due to lack of road space or congestion taxes and public transport is a viable option, it is a perfectly rational decision to switch over. Unfortunately given our particular level of development, the use of public transport is tied up with status and class. The only way to over come this is that cars must be inconvenienced. While the odd even scheme achieves this, it does little to project public transport as a viable option.
The ultimate success of the scheme should be dependent on people continuing to use public transport even after the 15th of January. Unfortunately given the current capacity of public transport and the state of its surrounding infrastructure, it is unlikely many will continue to use it, unless they are already frequent users.

The major problem with the odd even scheme is not in its implementation or if people will comply, it is simply that it is short sighted. Even if it is able to bring down pollution level in during the fifteen day trial period, it cannot be indefinitely extended due to its unsustainability.

While it is good that some action is being taken, this does not mean that we shouldn’t be critical of it. Such a scheme does have the possibility of being a success, but only if the investment is made in improving the city’s public transport services and infrastructure.

*The author is the managing associate of CPPR- Centre for Urban Studies. Views are personal.
Image 1- PTI
Image 2- Trina Shankar