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Beating the odds

The Aam Aadmi Party government’s much vaunted pollution-control experiment will come to an end on Friday. On Wednesday, however, Delhi Transport Minister Gopal Rai put an end to all speculation and said that the experiment could back for its second phase. Before announcing the second phase, the Delhi government will discuss the details of the first odd-even experiment on January 18. Based on its findings, Gopal Rai said that the Delhi government will take stock of these 15 days and decide on the shape the odd-even experiment will take in the future. He went on to add that the government will also discuss what other measures for pollution control can be implimented in the future. Among other measures, the government looks to set up a committee that will promote cycling as an alternative mode of transport, Rai said. Although the modalities of this initiative are yet to be worked out, there is no doubting the AAP government’s desire to curb pollution levels in the national capital. Based on its findings, the Delhi government has said that there was a “definitive declining trend” in the level of particulate matter (PM 2.5)—fine respirable particles that harm the respiratory system. However, other studies claim that in fact pollution levels rose by 50 percent in the first week of the odd-even plan. Suffice to say, there is no real clarity on whether private cars significantly contribute to pollution levels in the national capital. Different studies have arrived at different conclusions. Without the construction of the Delhi Metro and the introduction of CNG, the city would have collapsed on its own pollution. The AAP government, under the orders of the apex court, however, took a bold initiative and worked on other concrete solutions, which began with the odd-even experiment. For greater relief to commuters, who had to leave behind their private vehicles, the AAP government, under the watchful eyes of the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, has increased the frequency of metro trains. It also increased the number and frequency of buses. One of the odd-even experiment’s defining achievements was the reduction in congestion levels on Delhi’s roads, based on commuter-derived feedback. More than reduced levels of congestion, the success of the experiment was based on the fact that Delhi’s citizens had voluntarily bought into it. Instead of enforcing it in a top-down, authoritarian manner, the Delhi government convinced and cajoled its citizens to leave their cars for four days a week and use public transport instead. In other words, the onus on improving the state of Delhi’s air through the implementation of the odd-even experiment lied with its citizens. Talk about inculcating participation at the citizen-level! The beauty of the AAP government’s experiment also lies in its sheer simplicity, with citizens asked to leave behind cars with number plates ending in either an odd or even number, depending on the given day. It is hard not to understand such an experiment. Moreover, there is no doubt that the AAP government went on a media blitz to promote the odd-even experiment. 

Irrespective of these efforts a lot more must be done to reduce pollution in the city and improve its public transport infrastructure. According to a recent report by IIT Kanpur, road dust has been identified as the as the single biggest source (38 percent) of PM 2.5. To the uninitiated, road dust is earthen material or dirt that becomes airborne, primarily by the friction of tires moving on unpaved dirt roads and dust-covered paved roads. The Delhi government must quickly make good on its promise on introducing mechanical sweeping of roads. If these roads are swept twice a month, road dust emission will see a significant reduction in road dust emissions, according to the IIT Kanpur study. From April 1, 2016, the AAP government will introduce measures that include the vacuum cleaning of all PWD roads in Delhi at regular intervals. To mitigate the amount of dust in Delhi’s air, the AAP government has already implemented fines and plantation drives on unpaved footpaths and central verges. Besides these measures, the government has also proposed heavy fines on those trucks and vehicles that do not meet pollution standards. Although the Supreme Court decided to double the green tax on commercial vehicles entering the city last month, there are key institutional concerns that still remain. For example, back in November 2015, the South Delhi Municipal Corporation’s toll contractor was unable to collect the additional levy at toll booths in Delhi. Tax collection had become an “impossible task” due the lack of quality and experienced personnel on the ground and poor technology. The cocktail of a poor regulatory structure and lax enforcement of rules continues to haunt Delhi’s bid to reduce pollution levels. Suffice to say, the AAP government will have to find around these constraints, if it’s serious about reducing vehicular pollution. To improve the public transport connectivity, there are certain measures the AAP government can take to improve its buses, among other measures. Besides broken seats and windows, minimal access for the disabled and no space to stow luggage, overcrowding in the Delhi Transport Corporation buses is a major concern. Those who do take the bus do it out of sheer necessity.  These basic features need to be repaired in existing buses. Moreover, with the advent of GPS and the smartphone, the authorities could establish an app or a system, whereby commuters receive second-by-second updates about the time of arrival, disruptions, accidents and delays. Finally, to improve last-mile connectivity for the commuter, which remains a major concern for those who have followed the odd-even experiment, the Delhi government must deregulate auto-rickshaw licenses and put an end to the artificial scarcity of environment-friendly CNG autos in Delhi, among other measures. The AAP government has miles to go before it makes a serious dent on pollution levels in the city. But it has started on a good note. 
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