Market News

 January 04, 2016
Delhi's farcical pollution war.

 Gamblers in India like to play with even and odd numbers. The gamblers would have perhaps found it amusing that even and odd numbers have now been given a legal sanctity by the Kejriwal government which will restrict the movement of private cars and two-wheelers on the basis of the last digit of the vehicle's registration number plate in the nation's capital. Come January 1, 2016, the owners of cars and two-wheelers will have to align the road movement of their vehicles with the day/date and the last digit of their registration plate.

The restrictions have been welcomed by a section of the people---the environmentalists. But many others who have supported it are actually those whose travel or commuting plans will not be affected by the restrictions being imposed. They are people who have a pool of cars at their beck and call. It has also been said that those who can afford it will buy another vehicle to beat the even-odd number based curbs. How will more cars per family help improve the pollution levels?

The Delhi government, faced with criticism from different sections, has said that the formula of even and odd numbers for allowing cars on the roads will be observed for a fortnight. It will be scrapped if it does not fulfil the purpose of lowing air pollution or if it leads to a huge public outcry. But it will be extended if it is welcomed by the people.

Delhi will not be the first city in the world to use the even-odd configuration for allowing movement of private vehicles. But the national capital will be adding to the list of the cities which tried this form of restricting vehicle movement in the false hope that it will fight air pollution.

That pollution levels in Delhi are unacceptably high is a fact. The need to fight it can hardly be emphasised. But not many are convinced that the Delhi government and others whose job it is to control the quality of air have the right ideas. The National Green Tribunal has, for instance, announced that no diesel vehicle will be registered till January 6, 2016. What this ban will achieve will be an almost insignificant drop in the lowering of the suspended particulate matter in the air.

It is the same NGT which had expressed reservations about the even-odd formula of the Delhi administration, saying that it will not help bring down air pollution. It must have weighed on the mind of the NGT that the traffic police in Delhi is not in a position to enforce the decision to allow cars with even and odd numbers to ply on alternate dates.

Restricting vehicular movement on the basis of registration numbers will, of course, make an impact if for no other reason than the fact of the huge number of cars and two-wheelers that ply on Delhi roads every day. The question is how significant will be this impact.

A study by the IIT Kanpur says that cars contribute only 2.5 per cent to air pollution. That insignificant number, however, does not mean that we should stop bothering about pollution induced by private vehicles. There are other reasons for the criticism of the even-odd formula.

The even-odd formula amounts to banning half the private vehicle owners from using their personal mode of transport for half the week. They are being asked to use public transport which is neither efficient nor convenient in Delhi. The bus service in Delhi has been poor almost from the day it started six or seven decades ago. Taxis are expensive. 'Auto' rides are marginally less expansive but usually a very unpleasant experience. The 'auto' driver seems to decide the destination; he will not go where you want, particularly if it is a short distance. Refusal to go by the metre is common as is overcharging.

The Metro has been a welcome step in addressing the problem of inadequate public transport. But a Metro ride is hardly any different from a ride in overcrowded DTC buses, except that the Metro follows a schedule while the schedule of the DTC buses is observed only in breach.

The Delhi government has said that it will ask the Metro to increase the frequency of its trains and operate with more coaches. It is one of those things---the government making an announcement without caring to know whether it is being followed, or can be followed. The Metro authorities have indicated that there is little scope for increasing the frequency of the Metro services or adding more coaches. Train coaches cannot be produced overnight.

In order to bolster the bus services, Delhi is said to be planning introduction of nearly 3000 CNG buses during the days the even-odd formula is applied. These buses will come from the pool of the private ('contract') CNG buses and buses run by schools. The picture looks hazy because how can the private CNG bus operatives spare buses when they have their own regular customers. As for school buses, one was under the impression that a large number of the buses that ferry pupils to and from schools are actually DTC buses.

The temporary augmentation of the bus fleet is meaningless if the even-odd formula is to be extended beyond a fortnight. It is the existing DTC bus fleet that has to be augmented---something that is done in fits and starts, but never adequately.

It bears repetition to say that pollution of all kinds must be checked for the sake of the present and the future generation. But the air quality will not improve to the desired levels just by restricting the movement of private vehicles on the roads. There are far bigger contributors to pollution.

Burning of the farm waste and field stubble should be the priority focus of any step that aims at reduction of pollution and improvement of air quality. All over North India, the burning of dry leaves, twigs and papers is a common practice during the three or four months of winter. Some do it to keep themselves warm because they do not have or cannot afford to use electrical heating devises.

The bigger contribution to the toxicity of air comes from the burnings in the farms. The farmers think it not only takes care of the waste that accumulates on their fields and land but also as a means for getting better yields.

The state governments have been asked to see that there is no burning of farm waste, but the compliance is almost negligible. It is not very likely to improve because no government will like to do something that annoys the important 'vote bank' of farmers.