Delhi’s air pollution has once again hit record levels this winter. On Friday December 4, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal decided to announce that vehicles with odd and even number plates will only be allowed to ply on alternative days, starting January next year. While Mr Kejriwal has conceded that this measure may need to be re-looked at, once implemented over a short duration, policymakers like him must begin to develop a habit of carefully assessing the robustness of their policies lest the city suffers another Bus Rapid Transit type of disaster.
According to a 2015 Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority for NCR report, pollution in the city is at its peak when trucks are allowed in. Heavy-duty trucks (three axle and above) account for 61 per cent of the particulate matter load and 58 per cent of the nitrogen oxide load of all commercial vehicles entering the city. An official survey of such vehicles entering the city found that “40-60 per cent of heavy trucks were not destined for Delhi”. Yet the report draws the strange conclusion, which has since been accepted and implemented without a pre-feasibility check — that an additional MCD tax should be levied on trucks.
Let’s examine this by principles first. An additional tax on trucks equals stressing an already over-taxed industry. Indian businesses are trying to remain competitive despite poor connectivity and infrastructure. The journey between Beijing and Shanghai on an average takes half of what it takes to travel between Delhi to Mumbai by road, even though the distances are similar. Is the lack of infrastructure not a heavy enough price for businesses to pay? Instead of expediting arterial infrastructure, successive Governments have made hollow promises. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has at least managed to lay the foundation stone this November for the Western Expressway (Kundli, Manesar and Palwal,) that in conjunction with the Eastern Expressway (work yet to begin) will help re-route heavy vehicles. Of course, it remains to be seen how the pot-holes in planning and execution will be covered.
Another example is the directive to curb burning of garbage in Delhi. What is ironic about this curb is that the massive landfills across the city are ground zero for such activity — even though the Government itself is not accountable, it expects homeless people on the streets to be. Whether in the form of waste to energy or otherwise, technological solutions for large-scale waste management exist, but are currently too expensive to implement. Indians get paid for waste disposal by their local kabadiwalas. In stark contrast, waste disposal is a service which accounts for a meaningful share of household expenses in the West. This does not mean that policymakers should further increase the service tax cess for Swachch Bharat Abhiyan— a tax that does not even accrue to municipal authorities such as the bankrupt Municipal Corporation of Delhi! Rather, a systematic financial strategy to raise money has to be devised.
In its latest regulation on private vehicles, the Delhi Government seems to have once again favoured a tactical and probabilistic approach. India’s is a story of growing middle class consumption. This is what it boasts of when brandishing its ‘emerging country’ avatar. Yet, the Delhi Government has decided to tax the aspirations of its middle class — the very drivers of the country’s growth. To be clear, the imposition of the policy will not curb the consumption patterns of the upper middle class or the elite — or for that matter most of whom read this paper. It will however, delay a ‘better life’ for most of the young legions of workers that aspire to travel in some comfort. It is such aspirations that they derive motivation from. They will now continue to endure an over-crowded and non-dependable public transportation and the dangerous summer heat.
And, it must be pointed out that comparisons on the utilisation of public transport with cities like New York or London, do not make sense. These cities have relatively stable populations and near seamless point-to-point connectivity. Where is the long-term thinking in Delhi’s planning?
There are some additional questions that should be plaguing us, but do not. Has anyone from the Delhi Government actually studied the success of similar prohibitions in places like Beijing and Paris? Where is the synthesis report if such an analysis was indeed carried out? Delhi Metro is already overcrowded in peak hours. What will happen when the millions of Indians who are currently unemployed, begin to find jobs in cities like Delhi? Or is there some viable plan to create economic hubs outside of the NCR with abundant skilled talent and infrastructure?
Who will compensate businesses for the inevitable inefficiencies arising out of the logistical nightmare that is point-to-point connectivity? Should not the State regime have consulted the lead implementation agency, Delhi Police, before announcing the odd-even “trial run”?