Millennium Post

When people participate in a govt initiative

On January 1, I became one of the thousands of participants in India’s first odd-even number plate system in Delhi to curb vehicular pollution. Being a Delhite, the health burden of pollution is definitely a cause of concern for me. But the success in rolling out such a system has a few fundamental lessons in governance. And they are not relevant to just an urban set-up. The message from Delhi’s experiment is applicable to every development programme or policy for successful implementation. What are those lessons?

Delhi’s odd-even system seems outstanding not for the rigour of the government’s implementation plan but for the overwhelming support from the public. From day one, there has been much less violation than expected. It means people participated in the government’s scheme. Personally, I started enjoying the car-free alternate day. At the same time, I felt happy for my contribution to clean Delhi’s air.

Why people participated in this system is the big lesson for anybody involved in governance.
As Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal celebrates the first anniversary of his unprecedented electoral success in February, he should count the success of the odd-even system as his second-biggest win. And also, the biggest lesson in the people-centric governance he has been championing.

Kejriwal came into the limelight due to his hugely popular anti-corruption campaign. This is similar to the anti-pollution campaign: both issues impact common people directly and involve both, people and government. In both cases, political will is vital. Kejriwal invested political will in both cases equally. 
But why did the anti-corruption campaign fail to sustain without much public participation? At the same time, the anti-pollution campaign is turning out to be successful, with never- before-seen public participation.

At the risk of being termed very simplistic, here is an aam admi explanation. It is due to the choice people make between convenience and inconvenience. In most cases, corruption is about convenience, like avoiding a long queue at the railway reservation counter by paying a bribe to the tout. Pollution is an issue of inconvenience of very serious proportions: our own children suffering from respiratory problems, normal lives being crippled due to bad air. Another successful campaign, polio vaccination, also enjoyed similar participation due to the threat to our well-being. Probably, this is the reason people whole-heartedly participated in the odd-even system.

In situations where people have the incentive to participate, success depends on the government’s back-up plans. In Delhi, the government embarked on a campaign to make people aware, hired extra buses to strengthen public transport and Kejriwal and his ministers went out seeking public support. Their campaign made public participation the core of the strategy to fight air pollution. 

Now the difficult question: why don’t people participate in other similar programmes having direct benefits? For example, under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), people are entitled to plan for their village’s development works. But public participation in such planning has been negligible. This is despite direct benefits like increase in water availability in villages and assurance of irrigation for farms.  Policy makers have to apply the Delhi lesson more religiously. Bring out the inconvenience starkly and back up the roll out of a scheme with a mechanism that encourages people to participate.

An emergency situation needs emergency measure: Delhi is facing one of the worst spells of air pollution this winter. The odd-even measure is a fitting response to such an emergency situation. Analysis already shows that the 15-day car-control measures have curtailed pollution.

The convenience v/s inconvenience lesson on governance: Arvind Kejriwal’s anti-corruption drive, which brought him into the limelight, didn’t enjoy as much sustained support as his odd-even experiment did. It seems that people saw air pollution as a huge health risk or inconvenience and, thus, bartered away the convenience of driving to work for cleaner air.

Public mass transport is still the way out: The odd-even experiment showed that if the public transport system is improved, people will opt for it. During the 15 days, the government deployed almost 4,000 extra buses. It was a rare sight to see buses which were not too crowded despite a big chunk of private cars being off roads.

DTC is capable: The experiment showed that with rationalisation of routes and less congestion, the much maligned Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) can be effective. DTC has about 4,712 buses. But its utilisation during 2014-15 has been only 83.99 percent against the 85.5 percent in 2013-14. This is much worse compared to what state transport undertakings have achieved in other cities—95 per cent in Bengaluru and Chandigarh. At any given point of time at least 400 to 500 buses stand unutilised in Delhi’s depots due to poor maintenance or missed trips. This number of unutilised buses is equal to the total bus fleet in smaller cities. Reports show that during the experiment, the depots were almost empty.

Decongestion is the starting point for cleaning the air: Post-analysis scientific data will vouch for the experiment’s impact on air quality. But for the aam admi, the impacts are clear—fewer cars on roads mean a smooth ride, thus avoiding the unnecessary burning of fuels while being stuck in traffic jams. Also, less traffic means the public bus system ran more buses in a day.

Pollution did come down; so fewer vehicles on roads are desirable: An analysis carried out by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has shown that this winter, of all the severe smog episodes so far (with several consecutive days in severe category), the peak pollution during the odd-even programme has been the lowest. This shows that despite the hostile weather conditions—no wind, temperature dip and western disturbance—peak pollution during the odd and even scheme was much lower. The earlier smog episodes have seen much higher peaks and much more rapid build-up compared to the rise during the first week of January.

Reduced exposure to toxic pollution from vehicles on roads and in the vicinity: It is estimated by the US-based Health Effect Institute that the maximum impact of vehicular pollution is up to 500 metres from the road side and 55 percent of Delhi’s population lives within that zone. This has serious public health implications. Studies by researchers of the University of California, Berkeley, have shown that in Delhi, the pollution level on the road and close to the road is at least 1.5 times higher and peaks 15 times higher than the ambient concentration. This programme has, therefore, contributed to the reduction in exposure to toxic fumes.

A CNG-fuelled bus is a global warming fighter: The user of a single occupancy petrol car meeting Bharat Stage IV standards can reduce per capita particulate emissions per kilometre by at least two times by using a CNG bus. The benefit will be higher if the shift is from cars meeting older emissions norms.

The user of single occupancy diesel car meeting Bharat Stage IV norms can reduce per capita particulate emissions per kilometre by at least 40 times by using a CNG bus. If the shift is from a diesel SUV, the reduction will double.

Car pooling will reduce the per capita emissions by four times from the same car. Riding in the Metro is a zero-emission activity in the city (this does not account for emissions from electricity generation). The odd-even formula will also result in massive fuel savings and also mitigation of heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions. Per capita CO2 emissions from a single occupancy petrol car can reduce by 15 times when we use buses. Also, per capita CO2 emissions from a single occupancy diesel car can reduce by 13 times when we shift to buses. This translates into substantial fuel savings.

Tax the cars more than the public buses: Enhanced media focus on the experiment brought out the crucial fact that public transport buses are taxed more than private cars. It is an environmental injustice or say, an incentive for pollution. However, it is heartening to know that the judiciary has taken steps to fix this.

The demand for better public transport rises: As the city returns to roads without odd-even restrictions on January 16, there is going to be increased awareness and, thus, consequent demand for more public transport facilities. Politicians see electorates: 

The success of the experiment because of public participation has rung electoral alarms. From Uttar Pradesh to Karnataka, politicians now want to experiment with the odd-even system. There might be a competitive spree among states to roll out many such anti-pollution measures.

Public health is back on the agenda: The experiment worked because the threat to public health is real and people have already suffered. It was rolled out with public health as the main issue. This means the country’s capital has set an example by putting public health under the lens.  

 (The author is Managing Editor, Down to Earth. Views expressed are strictly personal)

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