The Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi has announced a slew of measures to address the >very poor air quality and pollution in the nation’s capital. It is, in principle, a largely welcome move that could push the needle for anti-pollution measures to be adopted by other Indian cities as well. These are possibly the most significant steps taken after the introduction of Compressed Natural Gas-powered vehicles in the city that are widely accepted as having helped reduce pollution. (However, it is debatable if they will together have the kind of effect the CNG shift had.)
The benefits of this emphasis by the government on regulations to address the city’s alarming air pollution levels will depend on the manner of implementation as well as other concomitant actions. The announced measures include the closing down of two thermal power plants, pushing the entry time of trucks into the city late into the night, the advancing of the cut-off date for Euro-VI emission norms, among others.
But the proposal that has predictably received the most attention is the one on >regulating private vehicle use by means of licence plate restrictions. These curbs, that are to be implemented temporarily from January 1, 2016, will allow private four-wheelers and two-wheelers access to Delhi’s roads only on alternate dates based on even/odd licence plate numbers. Cities such as Bogota, Beijing, Mexico City and Paris have implemented such restrictions in the past, amongst other reforms to decongest vehicle traffic and to reduce air pollution through expanding public transport and zoning certain areas as “low emissions only”.
Licence plate restrictions by themselves are >somewhat problematic : all private vehicles are treated equally, irrespective of their purpose and the fuel they use. To mitigate this, the Delhi government has relaxed the restrictions in the case of emergency use. Other exceptions such as car-pooling by multiple commuters should have also been considered. The larger point is that, without a concomitant expansion and improvement in public transport, the introduction of licence plate restrictions could only have a limiting effect.
The state of public transport in Delhi is relatively better than in most metropolitan cities in the country, with the capital enjoying a privileged position in the fiscal scheme of things. But despite that, the public transport system is still not fully equipped to handle the consequent increase in the number of commuters that could possibly occur due to the restrictions in place. Easing and expanding public transport must be the Delhi government’s priority.
The government had recently discontinued the Bus Rapid Transit System — instead of addressing its design problems and furthering its intended purpose of decongesting routes for public transport and enticing private vehicle users to shift. The licensing regulations must be part of a package of well-sequenced and thought-out steps if they are to be more than a traffic decongestion measure.