Any discussion of the Delhi government's proposed restrictions on private vehicle use must begin with an acknowledgement of who we are talking about.
Nationally, over 35 per cent of urban households own a motorised two-wheeler and just under 10 per cent own a car, jeep or van. In Delhi, where per capita incomes are among the highest in the country, these proportions are much higher: nearly 40 per cent of households own a two-wheeler and over 20 per cent of households own a car. The Census 2011 does not tell us how many households own both, so it’s reasonable to say that between 40 and 60 per cent of households own either a car or a two-wheeler in the capital. The Delhi government’s proposed restrictions, then, could affect half the city, and it seems fair to guess that this is the better off half of the city.
A 2011 National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) data showed that Delhi was among the States with the longest commutes: Goa, Chandigarh and Delhi had the highest proportion of households where the main earner needed to travel more than 5 km to his or her place of work. Among people who have to commute to work in Delhi, an equal share (26 per cent each) either walk or take the bus, Census data shows. Thirty per cent go by car or by two-wheeler. Bengaluru and Chennai and Hyderabad have even higher proportions of private vehicle-using commuters, driven mainly by the larger proportion of two-wheeler riders in those cities.
State of emergency Eighty-eight lakh cars and two-wheelers hit Delhi’s streets every day, and the city has the world’s worst air quality. The Delhi government is right in saying that this is an emergency response to an emergency situation. Particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10) levels in the city since Diwali have systematically remained in the “severe” category of India’s National Air Quality Index, levels that provoke poor air quality cities such as Beijing to even halt industrial production and restrict outdoor activities for children. Moreover, this state of emergency has begun to breach the borders of winter, when the burning of paddy straw by farmers in neighbouring Punjab and Haryana coincides with cooler temperatures to bring on a lethal fog — the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) said on December 2 that Delhi has had just 16 “good” air quality days this year.
The restrictions on private vehicle usage may have got most of the media coverage, but are by no means the only steps the government has announced — it will also begin vacuum cleaning of the dust from the roads in Delhi from April 1, 2016, close down the Badarpur and Raj Ghat thermal power plants, push the entry of trucks into the city to later in the night, and bring forward the cut-off date for Euro-VI emission norms. This bouquet of measures is particularly useful because the precise contribution of vehicles, industry, and the National Capital Region’s agricultural activities to Delhi’s air pollution has been debated: CSE trashed a 2010 study commissioned by the Ministry of Environment and Forests and conducted by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) for Delhi and Mumbai, which blamed LPG and road dust for Delhi’s air pollution. CSE contends that car emissions contribute to between 50 and 80 per cent of PM10 loads. An Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur study submitted last month found that vehicular emissions contributed to up to 60 per cent of winter air pollution.
Cities across the world have experimented with variations of restriction on car usage — there is odd and even day rationing during peak hours in Bogota (Colombia), similar restrictions during peak pollution days in Beijing, restrictions on single-occupancy vehicular passage in some North American cities, congestion charges on driving in the city centre in London, and high car taxes in Singapore.
Problems with proposal To be sure, there are problems with the proposed restrictions on private vehicle use in Delhi. In recent days, families with differently abled members have spoken out about the impossibility of using public transport that is neither seamless nor accessible and their fears about having to explain their situation at every traffic stop. A recent personal health-related experience with restricted mobility has given me much greater awareness of my privilege in being able to use a car when I cannot take the metro and fears for my own mobility from January on. Dozens of working women I know pride themselves on being able to work as late as the men in their office, secure in the knowledge that they can drive themselves home. Many parents with children in schools not served by buses are unwilling to use unreliable autos every day, particularly in winter. Last-mile connectivity remains patchy. Many such people, including me, are aware of the place of privilege we come from and are willing to work with the state so that our comforts do not come at the cost of everyone’s health, but the road map to that collaboration — which takes the form of permits and passes in the cities that have implemented such restrictions — is not yet visible. A vital link to both enforcing the system and tackling exceptions would have been the traffic police; however the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) continues to be relentlessly confrontational with the police, who have already expressed misgivings about their level of preparedness.
Where the AAP government will stumble is on improving public transport fast enough to accommodate the 45 lakh new commuters who will need to use the metro, buses, autorickshaws and taxis from January 1. The world-class metro is currently used by about 20 lakh people every day, while the Delhi Transport Corporation’s overstretched bus service serves 45 lakh passengers. Neither is equipped to take on several lakh new passengers within 15 days. Innovative reforms have either stalled or been killed, on one memorable occasion by the AAP government itself; in 2008, the then Congress government introduced a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system with a short dedicated high-speed corridor at a tenth of the cost of the metro. The 5.8-km BRT was not extended and it was poorly policed; in addition it created traffic snarls (as predicted in any road rationing scheme), angering car users and the city’s powerful car-using media. However, it did substantially improve its users’ experience, as I can testify to, having enjoyed a quick and comfortable commute for the two years I lived on its route. Soon after coming back to power, the AAP government scrapped it despite ample global evidence on how to improve it.
In the coming days, Arvind Kejriwal’s government is likely to face the same storm of middle class and rich Delhi outrage that blew the BRT out of the water. Perhaps political compulsions did not allow Mr. Kejriwal to attempt to improve a public transport innovation that was making the lives of the city’s bus-taking majority markedly better, while rationing road use for its private vehicle-using citizens. Perhaps poor advice stopped him from attempting to improve and expand it. Mr. Kejriwal’s proposed vehicle restrictions also require improvement, but I hope this time, he stays the course. Delhi’s richer half has dictated policy for all, all the while making air quality worse for all. That cannot continue.