Published in the Times of India
The Chief Minister and Transport Minister of Delhi have mooted the possibility of making permanent the odd-even policy of the Government wherein only half the private cars can be on the roads on any given day with odd and even numbered cars plying on Delhi roads on alternate days. Various Constitutional and state functionaries have been exempted as have been women driven and occupied cars and two wheelers. The policy was introduced in response to the growing clamor over high air pollution in the city with activists, media and Courts all weighing in on the consistently front-paged problem. The Delhi High Court stated that the city had become a “gas chamber” and pulled up the Central Government for its inability to come up with an action plan to tackle air pollution. The Center organized meetings with Governments of Delhi and neighboring states to try and come up with a plan. The Delhi Chief Minister said, “A sort of panic was created that the pollution has increased so much that something drastic has to be done”. In this charged atmosphere, the Delhi Government announced the odd-even policy immediately taking the pressure off itself to “do something drastic”. The Government never bothered to break down the sources of air pollution and their relative contribution and the expected impact of such a policy; instead much of the justification from its proponents in Government and outside was some version of “something must be done”.
At the end of the trial during which schools were forced shut, the results showed no positive impact on pollution yet the focus had shifted from air pollution to decongestion. The Chief Minister admitted as much, talking about how travel time, not pollution, had been halved, while promoting “odd even dobara”. The Delhi Government is now “seriously considering” making odd-even permanent – permanent here being year round but for only 15 days a month since the Government concedes that the public transport infrastructure is inadequate to support such a policy. This logic is bizarre in itself since the inadequacy of public transportation which renders this policy unviable will not vanish on the 15 days every month when the policy is in effect. However even otherwise the odd-even rule raises serious questions about the way public policy is made and state power deployed for uncertain ends.
There is no question that odd-even has constrained mobility of lakhs of people especially those living in the suburbs and peripheries of Delhi. The impact is especially severe on car-owning senior citizens, whose concerns have not been reflected in the public debate on this policy. Senior citizens often employ someone to drive them around, the driver usually doubling up as an assistant helping them with their personal errands and other age induced physical constraints. The driver takes them around to their usual places of work without their having to monitor or advise on the route. For an elderly person, to shift to public transportation is not just a small inconvenience but also entails significant claims on their physical and mental faculties. Moreover, the economics of keeping a driver will not make sense for many if they were forced to rely on public transport for half of the month. Many elderly people simply cancelled trips during the first phase because they believed the policy to be temporary. However, were this policy to be in force for 15 days every month, it will imply a significant constraint on senior citizens’ mobility. Compare this to self-driving women who have been exempted from this rule though they suffer from no such mobility issues. A young woman can easily walk long distances, hail autos, run up the stairs to catch the metro, call a cab from her smartphone but is exempt because women’s safety has become a politically fraught issue ever since the December 2012 rape of a young woman in Delhi. Yet women’s safety will not be imperiled if they aren’t exempted since the policy is in effect only during the well-populated hours of 8:00 am to 8:00 pm. However, senior citizens have not emerged as a political constituency and hence their real concerns have been disregarded.
The other exemption that this policy affords is to two-wheelers even though all studies agree that two-wheelers contribute more to air pollution than cars. This exemption makes sense electorally given not just the Chief Minister’s plebeian positioning but also cause ~40% of Delhi households own two wheelers as opposed to 20% of households with car (there is likely some overlap). Furthermore, despite frequent bombastic announcements there has been no augmentation of the public transport system other than radio taxis, which are a viable alternative only for the car owning population and not others. It is clear that the city is not supported by a wide enough public transportation network and people have had to resort to multiple modes of travel to reach their destination adding time and considerable inconvenience and/or expense. This inconvenience has been compounded for those traveling with children or elderly people.
These draconian curbs on people’s mobility were legitimized as an emergency response to alarming levels of pollution, which was directly linked to adverse health consequences and even death. The same policy could not possibly have been mooted to reduce traffic congestion but the Delhi Chief Minister is doing exactly that with the impact on pollution being given a cursory go-by while the de-congestion effects are heralded. The Chief Minister has essentially parlayed a policy predicated on a moral outcome (bachho ki sehat) into a political victory completely delinked from the original intent. To do so, the Chief Minister has claimed that Delhi’s residents have owned this experiment and made it a movement. If this is indeed true, it is not clear why a prohibitive Rs 2000 fine has been prescribed for those flouting the policy. In the absence of positive impact on pollution, the odd-even policy with its punitive component lacks legitimacy.
Many liberal proponents of the odd-even policy have sought to embarrass detractors by labeling them elite and hence by extension selfish and uninterested in public good. However, this mode of attack simply bypasses the relevant questions by turning the discourse into some kind of an irrational class war. In a poor country like India, anyone who doesn’t have to rely on public infrastructure is “elite” but the political implications of the word – of (illegitimate) power and influence – often simply do not apply. The lack of reliance on public infrastructure is as much a comment on the unacceptable quality of the public infrastructure as it is of privilege. Thus derision for those who resist switching to public infrastructure is more political posturing than it is a rational response. In any case, while the State may exercise discretion to incentivize some behaviors, surely a higher standard than the mere charge of elitism must apply to make illegal what was previously legal. Previous studies which apportioned contribution of various sources to air pollution, trial results and the exemptions granted simply do not provide justification for continuing the odd-even policy.