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Urban Pollution in India: Short-Term Fixes for a Long-Term Problem

In January 2015, the government of New Delhi decided to run a unique 15-day experiment. Under Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party, the Indian capital implemented a new road policy to test methods of combating the increasing levels of air pollution. For the first 15 days of 2015, New Delhi citizens were only permitted to drive their cars depending on the last digit of their license plate numbers; on some days, only odd-numbered vehicles were allowed to drive between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., whereas other days were reserved for those with even numbers. The policy exempted several groups of people, including female drivers, Condensed Natural Gas (CNG) certified vehicles, two-wheelers, differently abled citizens, and government VIPs. The policy has been tried and tested in several other parts of the world, including Paris, Bogotá, and Beijingwith varying levels of efficacy based on population, pollution levels, and the quality of public transportation systems. However, when it comes to New Delhi, the experiment’s results can be understood as ambiguous at best, due to government failure to communicate to its citizens a clear rationale for the policy before implementation, as well as inadequate data collection and the inability to measure the policy’s legitimate effects without controlling for other variables.

New Delhi was declared the most polluted city in the world on November 6, 2016, at the end of a week of Diwali celebrations. Pollution levels during Diwali hit about five or more times the universally accepted unhealthy standards. Currently, air pollution causes 10,000-30,000 deaths per year in New Delhi alone, making it the fifth leading cause of death in India. Historically, the main sources of air pollution have been vehicular traffic congestion and power plants, as well as construction, road dust, and biomass burning, which are often used as domestic fuel in India. Such air pollution can cause both suspended particulate matter (SPM), which can lodge into lungs and cause serious disease, and excessive release of greenhouse gasses. Additionally, sulfur dioxide (SO2), another gas emitted by such processes, can severely damage the environment by producing acid rain, a leading cause of deforestation. A recent New York Times report found that New Delhi’s current particulate levels pose a danger to the city’s 20 million residents equivalent to that of smoking more than two packs of cigarettes every day.

This is the dangerous reality that ultimately drove the Kejriwal government to implement the odd-even car rationing policy. While C.M. Kejriwal declared the odd-even experiment a success, it is important to define what success means when discussing such an experiment. Was success dependent on public reception of the policy, how well the odd-even policy was followed by the general public and implemented by authorities, or the overall, tangible short-term or long-term impacts of the policy on air pollution levels in the city? Sadly, even then, a case-by-case analysis shows a rather grim image for each measure of success.

Firstly, public reception of the policy was rather ambiguous. While experts such as Amartya Sen commended the bravery of such an experiment and the precedent it would set for further plans to curb pollution, it was also criticized as impractical given the lack of sufficient and good-quality public transportation options for the residents of Delhi. Even though Delhi has one of the best metro networks in the country, extending 190 km across the landscape, the infrastructure is struggling to keep up with the rapidly expanding population, which already rests at 20 million people. However, it is important to note that with regards to the implementation and regulation of the policy in the 15 days, one could deem the policy a success: The traffic and congestion on Delhi roads radically decreased. Additionally, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) also highlighted that the policy significantly increased general average car speeds, reducing overall fuel usage of cars due to faster moving traffic. However, TERI also emphasized the importance of increasing viable, alternative public transportation options.

In terms of the policy’s immediate effects on pollution levels, the data does not point to an explicit conclusion. Although some studies are quick to conclude that the total 2.5PM levels reduced significantly in the 15-day period, several others highlight alternative data that reveals that there was, in fact, more pollution in the city within the 2-week period. Several experts have actually highlighted how the effect of the policy’s impact on pollution levels is ambiguous due to several other factors that affect pollution levels, including weather, wind speeds, road dust, industrial pollution, as well as time of the year — factors which have not been accounted for in most evaluations. A study conducted at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur also pointed out that two-wheelers, one of the categories exempt from the trial law, actually contributed substantially more to 2.5PM and 10PM than cars — they accounted for a whopping thirty-three percent of total contributions in comparison to ten percent by four-wheelers. Accordingly, the short-term impact of this policy appears not only hard to evaluate, but also more targeted towards solving congestion and traffic problems than decreasing permanent pollution levels.

Given the ambiguity in its short-term effects, the long-term effects of the policy are even more dubious. In fact, the experiment was repeated a second time in the capital city between April 15-30, 2015, and turned out to be rather ineffective since people had obtained more cars, used more taxis, and had switched over to CNG. Not only did air pollution increase by twenty-three percent in the second odd-even policy phase, but it also failed to curb congestion and traffic levels. However, a year later, Kejriwal happened to clarify in a statement to CNN-IBN that his policy was only meant to be implemented temporarily as a weapon to curb immediate, dangerous levels of pollution, and was not meant for permanent implementation. Even if Kejriwal’s justification is true, such a short-term policy proposal seems rather weak in the face of the long-term fight against increasing levels of air pollution and climate change.

Kejriwal’s solution is certainly not the first policy innovation New Delhi has turned to in order to fight the ill effects of high levels of air pollution. The earliest efforts started out in the 1990s after a public interest lawyer, M.C. Mehta, filed public interest litigation before the Indian Supreme Court requesting them to take legal action to curb pollution. By the mid-1990s, the government had passed their first few pieces of legislation, mandating the closure of hazardous industries, the retirement of commercial vehicles that were 15 years or older, the conversion of all commercial passenger vehicles to CNG, and the reduction of sulfur content in diesel and petrol from one percent to 0.2 percent.

But, time and time again, the government has faced challenges to creating an effective policy for a country with a population of over one billion. In addition to just the sheer size of the country, about twenty-five percent of India still lives without basic amenities such as electricity, shelter, and water. The majority of this population relies on cheap alternatives such as indoor cooking stoves, as well as biomass burning for fuel purposes, and auto-rickshaws as a form of public transport, which run on a toxic mix of kerosene. Additionally, as India continues to grow, those slowly rising into the middle classes desire to own material goods, with the car being the most notable example. In 2012, New Delhi already had about 7.35 million cars on the road; this number is only projected to continue growing at an exponential rate given India’s rapid urbanization and cultural desire to own luxury goods, such as cars, as a symbol of higher status.

Unfortunately, thus far, Modi’s most successful policies have been rather mediocre, some of which include providing all traffic personnel in New Delhi with face masks and implementing a green cess on commercial vehicles. Sadly, these policies are representative of Modi’s over-reliance on short-term adaptation strategies, rather than more robust mitigation strategies, as well as over-reliance on market forces to solve environmental externalities. In the international arena, Modi and François Hollande, President of the French Republic, jointly invited several countries to join their newly initiated Solar Alliance on the first day of the Paris Climate Conference. However, this seemed like a rather pretentious front to the deceptive nationally determined contributions (NDCs) India set for itself that boasted high targets, but in the finer print, continue with business-as-usual projections.

In light of these general challenges and the dangerous levels of pollution in India — which are increasing on a daily basis — the Indian government will have to act soon and formulate a more effective long-term policy. While short-term policies such as the odd-even car ban may save cities like New Delhi from reaching inhabitable conditions in the short-run, the city continues to rank as one of the most polluted cities in the world. The aim of the government will have to shift away from running emergency operations to prevent pollution hitting a tipping point, and shift towards finding more permanent pathways to cleaner and greener fuel, and a robust public transportation system with incentives to use it. Additionally, the government will have to take critical steps to educating its population on the ill-effects of such high levels of air pollution if they have any hope of creating an informed and responsible citizenry that will provide the popular will to win the battle against pollution.



About the Author

Divya Mehta '18 is a World Staff Writer at BPR.