The fact that Delhi’s air quality is possibly the worst in the world is well known for many years now. The fact that both the central and state governments did nothing apart from a lot of lip service and thumb twiddling too is equally true. There are also no two opinions that a lot needs to be done in this regard, some on immediate basis to contain the problem and a lot on a long term basis to improve the situation and maintain pollution at acceptable levels. It is also true that an odd knee jerk action by the authorities will not serve the purpose. In fact at times it may add to the problems of the city without doing much to mitigate the pollution level. City beautiful in reality is not beautiful to live as on date because of the high pollution levels that are a threat for one and all – be it the rich or the poor. Nature indeed is a big leveller.
There are many reasons for the dangerous pollution levels in Delhi with automobile pollution, cars in particular, being there at the very top. This so because it is the most talked about reason, can be ascribed to the wealthy and reasonably well off strata of society and Delhi has the highest car population among all metro cities in the entire country. Increase in diesel fuel based cars has been a major contributor to the higher pollution levels. The onus for this has to be laid on the faulty governmental policies where the huge differential in prices of petrol and diesel encouraged sale of diesel cars. Easy availability of car loans from banks and other institutions too has contributed in no small measure to increased car sales. Finally, the inability of the government to phase out old vehicles is another serious problem that needs to be solved to reduce the overall numbers.
The question is what should be done to minimise the number of vehicles on the road at any given time, reduce the number of new vehicles added to Delhi every day, how to phase out old vehicles from service and finally what can be done to limit the ownership of cars. On one hand the automobile industry claims to be in dire straits at all times and a further reduction in vehicle sales will push the industry in more problems. On the other hand, without a doubt, there is a need to check the population of vehicles within the city so as to reduce the pollution levels on an urgent basis. Since passenger cars form the biggest chunk of all vehicles registered, it may be worthwhile to see how car sales and numbers of cars on road at any given time can be controlled.
Is allowing only odd or even number cars on road on any given day an effective answer to the problem? It has been tried in some other large cities like Beijing, Paris and Bogota but without much success. Those cities were better prepared than Delhi in terms of public transport systems, traffic control, electronic surveillance and police monitoring. Another important factor in their favour was that the number of vehicles entering these cities from outside was much lower as compared to Delhi. Statistics showed that in most cities car sales went up including sale of old cars and fake number plates racket came to the fore in at least Beijing and Bogota. As on date only Beijing follows a modified version of the odd – even plan by banning vehicles with two last digit numbers on one day of the week and with no restrictions on weekends. In view of the above experience, the plan of odd / even number of vehicles being banned from the roads on alternate days is not likely to succeed in Delhi. In fact it may throw up new challenges for the administration, the already overloaded public transport systems, fleecing of commuters by auto rickshaws and higher levels of inconvenience to public at large. By itself, in isolation, any plan that aims at banning half the cars on alternate days is not likely to work. Yet, without a doubt, there is an imperative need to introduce some effective measures to reduce the number of vehicles on Delhi roads.
It may be better to look at this problem in a holistic manner than to institute some knee jerk or half baked solutions. High car density in the city is not only responsible for pollution but also for heavy traffic on the roads. Therefore there is a need to find solutions that will help in reducing numbers, easing traffic and reducing pollution. To achieve this government can consider introducing following measures:
- First and foremost is the need to limit the number of vehicles within the state of Delhi. This implies creating a mechanism to limit the increase in number of cars in Delhi. As a start point it may be a good idea to take the current figure as the upper limit plus a nominal 5% increase on an annual basis for next three years.
- A limit must be laid on registration of new cars in Delhi based on expected number of cars likely to be scrapped during a year. This data can be made available from RTO authorities easily.
- No new vehicle to be registered in an individual’s name if he already has one registered earlier. This restriction should also apply for sale of used cars.
- A new vehicle may be allowed to be registered in an individual or company name if the individual either sells his old car to a customer outside Delhi or scraps his old car. In such a case Delhi registration must be cancelled by the authorities.
- A car’s life should be fixed at 15 years after which its registration should be cancelled automatically and it must be scrapped. For collectors or users of vintage cars, a special registration (separate from new registration) should be introduced at a reasonable fee and those cars to be allowed on roads only on weekends and government holidays.
- First time car buyer, new or old must be an income tax payer (not just a PAN card holder) and minimum age for registration of car in a person’s name be fixed at 18 years.
- All cars brought to Delhi from other states must be registered with Delhi authorities, without the need to change the registration, by a simple on line mechanism. If an individual wants to change to Delhi registration, it must be made available on line at a nominal fee if he has already paid a full ten year tax in the parent state where car was bought. The process should be simple without too much financial burden.
- To discourage corporate from buying too many cars, it may be essential to impose some restriction on them too. These may be in the form of restricting the number of cars that an employee can be given, an additional green cess on every car purchased, reducing the depreciation available on cars, restricting the fuel expenses that can be booked on each car and the number of new cars that a corporate can purchase in any calendar year.
- The government too has to look within to prevent misuse of official cars, avoid cavalcades to commute as a sign of importance and power, pooling of cars for officials are some of the measures that need to be enforced within its own ranks. A total ban on purchase of new cars for two years should be put in place. However if a car is scrapped based on 15 years of life, a replacement should be allowed.
- Finally as a start point the government should consider reducing 10% cars on road on daily basis. For this it may ban registration numbers ending with any one digit for one day in the ten working days in a fortnight. There should be no restrictions on weekends or public holidays.
If the government wishes to reduce the usage of cars, it is imperative that it provides some additional facilities to the public that encourages them to leave their cars at home. Some of the measures that should be considered in this regard are:
- Rules for plying of public taxis need to be revisited. Ideally a Mumbai like taxi culture of the sixties and seventies should be encouraged which is also prevalent in most big cities around the world. A commuter should be able to hail a taxi at any place instead of the Delhi model of Taxi Addas that create monopoly and cost a bomb apart from limited availability. Online taxi services need to be encouraged to augment the availability of taxies. Needless to say that all taxies must run on meters only irrespective of distance travelled.
- There is an imperative need to discipline auto rickshaws to ensure that they go by the meter instead of the present system of haggling and asking for excessive charges. It will require both political and administrative will to set this malady right. The fact that auto rickshaws continue to ply on Delhi roads in an unregulated manner and have been dictating terms to commuters for decades is indeed a sad reflection on the authorities.
- Apart from addition of new buses it is important is to inculcate discipline in buses, both for the crew as well as the commuters. This will include the way buses are driven, ensuring proper stoppage at bus stops, avoiding overloading, following traffic rules and above all adhering to a time schedule. Cleanliness and upkeep of buses will be an important issue to encourage car users to use public buses on days when they cannot run their own cars.
- There will be a need to rationalise bus routes too with a view to ensure that areas with high density of offices (like Nehru Place) are served efficiently with high frequencies during peak hours, both the in morning and evening. This will also include ensuring good feeder services to metro stations.
- Traffic regulation will have to be improved drastically and Delhi Traffic police should shift from a Traffic Challan Force to a Traffic Management Force. There should be no need for the traffic police to work in groups of three to five personnel as seen today, instead at most traffic points a single man should be adequate with augmentation at peak hours where required. This will need better training and greater motivation for the force.
- Focus on increased use of technology to monitor traffic as well as violators of traffic rules.
- The existing driving schools are far from adequate and it is actually a shame that the authorities accord any recognition to them. There is an urgent need to upgrade the standard of these schools and the examination for final grant of a driving licence to turn out better quality drivers. May be Delhi should seek to retest the drivers who claim to have a licence from outside Delhi so as to bring all at the same level. This step is important for ensuring better traffic sense and smooth flow of traffic.
It is obvious that the AAP government in Delhi has neither done its homework nor solicited any expert advice on the problem despite all the resources available at its disposal. As is their want, it is more a game of one-upmanship with a view to gain some political brownie points. The seriousness and commitment of the authorities is totally missing since the order of banning half the cars on each day of the week is basically a politically motivated measure. It has been issued without taking other stakeholders in confidence. If it works then Mr Kejriwal will claim to be a hero, if it does not (which is a certainty) then he and his government will blame everyone around and play the victimisation card. The government will be well advised to study the problem in its totality and prepare a plan to cover all sources that pollute the city’s air and not just cars.
The problem in hand is very complicated and has no easy solutions. First and foremost the authorities will have to be highly committed to make a difference in the overall interest of the city. The commitment of the authorities will not be determined by the orders they pass or the restrictions they impose on the use of cars. It will be determined more by the measures they take prior to passing orders which will instil confidence in the public and motivate them to take the restrictions in their stride for betterment of the city they live in. Public education will be another way to ensure their involvement and seek their co-operation. It is indeed a matter of shame for every citizen of Delhi if the city continues to remain the most polluted city in the world. In the final analysis it is essential that the government first does its homework and resolves the obvious roadblocks that the public will face before imposing any restrictions to seek the ultimate goal of improving the environment of the city that we live in.
Saroj Chadha, an engineering professional, is a successful entrepreneur. Having retired from the Indian Army after having served for over 23 years, he has also been a consultant for leading Indian and Multinational electrical companies. He lives in New Delhi.