Vehicles in New Delhi. Representative image. Photo: lingaraj/Flickr, CC BY 2.0
The following excerpt from Jyoti Pande Lavakare’s Breathing Here Is Injurious To Your Health (November 2020) is republished with permission from Hachette India.
In January, the people of Delhi adopt and actively support the ‘odd-even scheme’ announced by the Aam Aadmi Party. The scheme dictates which vehicles will be allowed on the road through the week based on their licence plate numbers, and aims to cut down pollution in the city. The ready compliance of the people shows not only that there is some degree of awareness about the ill effects of air pollution, but also, that, when required, Delhi’s residents will cooperate.
Sadly, the scheme does absolutely nothing to bring down levels of air pollution, as research confirms later. Some reports even say that, counter-intuitively, pollution levels likely increased. The reasons for this are many, the two main reasons being the lack of adequate public transport as an alternative to private vehicles and the many exemptions allowed under the scheme.
Since Delhi’s public transport system is inadequate for the population to begin with, any extra burden only creates more scarcity and chaos. Around the time that the odd-even scheme is launched, newly launched taxi services like Uber and Ola see a sharp rise in demand. Since public transport is unable to ferry all the commuters, people turn to taxis, and the overall demand for and usage of taxis increases while the scheme is in place. Furthermore, Uber’s ‘surge’ pricing policy attracts many Uber drivers not registered in Delhi to enter the city to meet the sudden demand. Since taxis with an all-India licence don’t necessarily have to be CNG-fuelled, as is mandated for all taxis registered in Delhi, there is an increase in diesel fumes being emitted because of the influx of taxis from other states. All of this results in no actual drop in the number of vehicles on the road. Also, the total actual mileage travelled by the vehicles doesn’t drop in the same proportion as their presence on the road. Odd-numbered cars do more kilometres on odd days, ditto even cars on even days, keeping the total number of kilometres travelled more or less the same.
The second and more important reason is that two-wheelers – with their two-stroke engines that use a mixture of gasoline and oil as fuel which cause more pollution – are exempted from the scheme and remain on the road. There is thus little real effect in the efforts to clean the air. The oil-gas fuel of older models emits more smoke, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and particulate matter than the gas-only four-stroke engines found in newer motorcycles. Making matters worse, many two-wheelers carry extra passengers during this time, making the engines work harder and burn dirtier.
Since inexpensive two-wheelers form a staggering 75-80% of traffic in most Asian cities, reducing pollution depends on stringent emissions standards for them. India is no different. Two-wheelers (75%) and three-wheelers (4%) constituted about 80% of the total number of vehicles in 2008. In addition to strict emission standards India needs an effective vehicle-inspection programme, fiscal incentive programmes to replace existing two-stroke engines with four-stroke ones, and the development of efficient public transportation systems, none of which are addressed by the odd-even scheme. In India, government data shows that two-wheelers consume 62% of petrol. Cars consume less than half of that – only 27%. This skew is not unique to India. Measurements of how much pollution two-wheelers emit are rare, but one study of traffic intersections in Bangkok found that two-wheelers contributed to up to 47% of particulate matter in the air. Similarly, when two-stroke scooter taxis were phased out in Dhaka in 2002, particulate concentrations dropped by up to 40% and the levels of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons fell significantly. Dr Mukesh Sharma estimates that in India between 25 and 40% of total vehicular pollution is caused by two-wheelers. ‘Two-wheelers in India travel 1 trillion kilometres each year,’ he will tell me some years later, and that number is so staggering that I have to ask him to repeat himself.
Lastly, diesel vehicles and large trucks are still at large – so the biggest contributors to pollution aren’t controlled. Another survey, done by Nielsen, shows that 19% of diesel vehicles are used for agriculture and 66% for transport.
National news channels ask for CFA’s views on the odd-even scheme. ‘Target the dirty fuel, the polluting engine, not the licence plate,’ I say multiple times on different national television shows. But no one seems to be listening.
As a group, we support any measure taken by the government to address the problem of air pollution, however small, ad hoc or reactive – it’s better than nothing being done. But, instead of targeting number plates, the Delhi government needs to tackle real issues, beginning with the still-subsidized dirty diesel fuel, then figuring out how to retain the better, cleaner, BS-6 fuel within the country instead of it being exported, and looking into effective engine models. It is, after all, a fact that – India exports ‘cleaner’ cars to Mexico than it sells to its own people. What is not as well known is that Indian refineries export cleaner fuel to other countries, while selling cheaper, dirtier fuel produced domestically. There is talk of moving to BS-6 fuel by 2020, but now that I know how harmful polluted air is, I don’t understand why it should take so long to switch. Years later, even by 2019, the government will be subsidizing fossil fuels over nine times more than its subsidy to renewable energy, a fact that will continue to bother me.
Despite its flaws, CFA decides to support the scheme whole-heartedly because it has raised awareness like nothing else has. It has helped do in one stroke what CFA and other organizations like ours couldn’t have done in years. Overnight, awareness about pollution has become more mainstream, a fact I ascertain by the sudden surge in the mention of the word – ‘pradooshan’, the Hindi for pollution, on television programmes, news channels, in the regional media, advertisements and conversations among people alike. When people sitting at tea shops, vegetable vendors and autorickshaw drivers start talking about pollution, that is when I will say awareness has reached a critical mass.