On December 23, Delhi had its most polluted day of the year. Authorities had recorded the highest levels of suspended particulate matter PM 2.5 and PM 10, taking the air quality into the “severe” category across the city. Besides other sources, experts attributed the spike to “open biomass burning”, which mainly includes the burning of dry leaves to fight the biting cold, across Delhi and its surrounding regions. Air quality across Delhi had plunged into the ‘‘severe’’ level post-Diwali, but pollutants had shown a steady fall earlier this month. The average of PM 2.5 (the tiniest and most damaging of all the particulate matters) and PM 10 were 295 and 470 micrograms per cubic metre respectively, which were multiple times above the corresponding safe limits of 60 and 100, the Centre’s System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) said. However, to attribute rising pollution levels on open biomass burning is a cop out. According to a study conducted by IIT-Kanpur, at the behest of the Delhi government, the two largest contributors to air pollution in Delhi are road dust and vehicular pollution. Road dust contributes 36 percent of PM2.5 in Delhi, according to the study. In response, the apex court on December 16 had directed the Delhi government to come up with a detailed plan for road dust control before the next hearing in January. There are various strategies that can be inculcated to reduce the proliferation of road dust– street paving and design, vegetative barriers, sprinklers, vacuum cleaning where ever possible and the reduction of traffic. According to the IIT Kanpur study, at least, a quarter of all cars on Delhi roads run on diesel. Their survey in different parts of Delhi has shown that diesel cars are responsible for 60 to 70 percent of PM2.5 from the vehicles. Moreover, another study by the Centre for Science and Environment has suggested that cars and two-wheelers contribute close to half of the particulate road from the transport sector in Delhi. Excluding trucks, their contribution rises to 76 percent of the transport sector particulate load, according to CSE. Suffice to say, most of these vehicles do not adhere to the vehicular emission standards.
In response, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced on Thursday that the national capital will implement the odd-even experiment with private cars on the road from January 1 to 15. A formal notification in this regard will appear on Monday. Odd number cars will run on dates with odd numbers and even-numbered ones on dates with even numbers from 8 am to 8 pm, except on Sundays. Violators will be fined Rs 2,000 if they break rules. The scheme, which aims to curb rising pollution in the city, can be implemented further if it is successful during the 15-day trial period. “We have to solve this problem together; the government cannot do it alone,” Kejriwal said. It is fair to suggest that such a proposal seems a little odd at first. But the government, at least, seems to have understood that putting a premium on using roads is the only way to solve the problem of vehicular pollution. Despite such an understanding, certain sections of the populace have been exempted from the rule. Women travelling alone or with children below the age of 12 have been exempted from the odd-even policy. The government cited safety concerns as the reason. Although it is a fair exemption, the Delhi government would not have seen any reason to make one had it worked on a comprehensive public transport system. The simple reason for keeping bikes out of the system is that our public transport is not strong enough to provide a viable option. Even Chief Minister Kejriwal has admitted to this very fact.
Before implementing restrictions on the flow of vehicles, Beijing had constructed an extensive subway and public bus network and installed sophisticated automatic surveillance, using cameras instead of traffic police to implement the rules. Moreover, car-pool lanes were put in place to establish last-mile connectivity. What the Chinese authorities did was establish a sophisticated public transport infrastructure before ordering their citizens to forego their cars on particular days a week. However, the most surprising exemption from the odd-even rule was for VVIPs. Suffice to say, the sight of a diesel-emitting SUV carrying a VVIP is common in the national capital. There is absolutely no reason why they should be exempted from the rule unless there is a clear threat to their life. An understaffed traffic police force, who will be tasked with implementing this proposal, and the counterfeiting of extra number plates are just some of the implementation issues that stand ahead of the Delhi government. It will be interesting to see how this proposal pans out.