Stories from the field Author: Nimish Jha Comments
ASIA: India

Recent observations by the Delhi High Court, based in New Delhi, India, in regard to Delhi’s deterioration into a "gas chamber" highlights the plight of citizens in the wake of rising hazardous levels of pollution and environmental degradation. It was only last year that the World Health Organization named Delhi the world's most polluted city in a study of 1,600 cities[1].

The city has been experiencing dangerous levels of pollution with its air having high concentrations of particulate matter, measured in PM. According to System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), operating under the Ministry of Earth Sciences, collected particulate data at the PM2.5 and PM10 particle size and found hazardous levels of particulate matter at 295 µgm3 and 470 µgm3 [2], respectively. The pollution levels are skyrocketing beyond permissible limits and are causing serious public health hazards. According to India’s National Health Profile (2015), there were almost 3.5 million reported cases of acute respiratory infection (ARI) last year, an increase of 140,000 cases from the previous year and a 30% increase since 201[3]. The increasing level of vehicular pollution is one of the biggest contributors to the growing amount air pollutants. Hence, the Court was compelled to direct the state government to take the appropriate measures and ensure a “zero tolerance” policy for violators of these stipulations.

Among other measures, the state government initiated a car-rotation plan, or “odd-even” plan, in Delhi to mitigate the effects of vehicular pollution. The initiative has been piloted in other international cities in Mexico as well as China, prior to the 2008 Olympics.  Similar restrictions have been implemented in Bagota (Cambodia), Santiago (Chile), Sao Paulo (Brazil) and Paris (France), although these have been implemented inconsistently. The initiative has had mixed results with some studies indicating some short-term impacts in lowering pollution levels[4]. The State Government of Delhi introduced "odd-even rule" on a trial basis between 1 Jan 2016 and 15 Jan 2016 in an attempt to offset the alarming levels of air pollutions caused by vehicular transport. More specifically, the private vehicles bearing odd and even registration numbers would operate on alternate days. The plate numbers ending with odd numbers will be allowed to operate on odd dates and plate numbers ending with even numbers will be allowed to operate on even dates, specifically between 8 am and 8 pm with the exception Sundays. However, this order does not apply to public transport vehicles, commercial vehicles, all the government official and embassy vehicles, women drivers, compressed natural gas (CNG) certified vehicles, old citizens travelling as co passengers, amongst another 25 categories that are exempt under the scheme. Any violation would lead to a penalty of Rs. 2,000 ($30 USD). This rule also includes vehicles entering from the adjoining areas around Delhi.

In order to successfully implement this programme, several agencies collaborated closely with each other including the Delhi Government, Delhi Police, transport department and Delhi Traffic Police. Over the course of the 15 days of the pilot initiative, approximately 3,000 additional buses were utilized, 200 teams of Delhi Traffic Police, 66 enforcement teams from the transport department and 40 teams of sub-divisional magistrates were deployed to enforce the plan. The government also issued two helpline numbers for people to register their complaints and suggestions in connection with the scheme[5].  Civil defense volunteers were also engaged to assist the police teams at several major stretches and intersections in the city to inform residents about this first-of-its-kind initiative in the city.

The state government also undertook several measures along with enforcement of the “odd-even” initiative. Specifically, the state government banned reregistration of 10-year or older diesel run cars (according to the Motor Vehicle Act, diesel cars are granted registration for a period of ten years, after which they have to apply for reregistration to be allowed to ply for another five years before discontinuing its usage). The schools were shut down until the end of the trial period to allow for the usage of its buses for public transport. Alongside these initiatives, the Honorable Supreme Court banned trucks from entering the city if they were over 10-years old. Similarly, taxi firms were also told to switch their cars to CNG by the end of March 2016. As a long-term measure, the state government also decided to shut down thermal power plants including those in Dadri, Badarpur and Rajghat. In addition, it is also planning to make it mandatory for all vehicles to have Euro-VI emission norms beginning in 2017 instead of 2019[6]. The state government also plans to use vacuum cleaners for the daily cleaning of dusty roads and stretches its continuous area or expanse of road. 

The “odd-even” rule has been a subject of intense debate and discussion in regard to its viability and the impact that it will have in decreasing pollution levels. It is argued that this initiative had too many exemptions that resulted in ineffectively in achieving the desired results. It was also concluded that the issue of pollution originating from other sources such as power plants, crop residue burning and industrial areas should be addressed along with vehicular pollution. While such debates continue, the road congestion and driving time had evidently decreased sharply during the 15-day span. Furthermore, there was compliance from commuters to ensure the implementation of the initiative. In last fifteen days, the traffic police issued just 9,140 rule violation fines (challans) to violators, collecting approximately Rs. 1.82 crores (265,720 USD) in fines[7]. Where as in 2013 - 2014, the traffic police department collected total of Rs. 64 crores[8] (934,400 USD). There is also a new report that provides evidence that the “odd-even” initiative had a decreasing the pollution levels to some extent[9]. With these findings, it is expected that there is going to be intense debate to whether or not there was an impact.

Nonetheless, this initiative did showcase growing awareness about the implications that pollution is having on Delhi and its citizens. Environmental issues are beginning to garner the global attention that they deserver, and hopefully, additional concrete measures will be undertaken to make Delhi's urban environment cleaner and greener—an environment that is worth living for its citizens. The future looks promising as other Indian cities such as Ahmadabad[10] are planning to enforce this initiative. In terms of advancing the environmental sustainability agenda, 2016 has begun on a positive note!


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