Hawa Hawai: Why Licence Plates Don’t Cure Smog, Clean Fuels Do

Image by Peder Sterll, Flickr


New Delhi is the world’s most polluted city measured by PM2.5 , which are tiny, toxic particles that lead to respiratory diseases , with an annual average of 153 micrograms per cubic meter, according to the WHO’s stats for 2014. Nine other Indian cities are also part of the list of 15 most polluted cities in the world.  What is wrong with us, India?

So one of today’s dramatic headlines is World’s Most Polluted City Plans Odd/Even Cars on Alternate Days. The New Delhi administration is planning on introducing a ban on half of cars every day, alternately, based on odd and even number plates. 

On one hand, this move is being applauded by a  section of  society, recognising it as  a bold and proactive move to curb air pollution in the  capital. On the other hand, the move is being criticised for causing inconvenience and achieving no real change in the status quo.

The move isn’t an innovation as many believe but an actual method tried across several cities inclusing Paris, Mexico City and Beijing, in order to curb daily emmissions in cities. However, the method has proved to not be ineffective but worsened the air pollution levels in the long run.

This is because the class which does predominantly use cars, and if it is seen as an indispensible form of transport, will imemdiately switch to buying two cheaper cars, which translates into two car with lesser fuel efficiency and more emissions. This was observed in Paris, Santiago, Milan, Santiago and Mexico City. Moreoever, companies with disposable income offerred their employees company cars with the required number plates with no change in status quo. Also, this led to a thriving market in fake number plate manufacturing. So, even asuming people in New Delhi don’t buy newer cars, do we genuinely believe that the Jugaad Capital won’t ensure that everyone has a set of two licence plates, odd and even? Is there any realistic way of enforcing this rule?

Moreoever, when Paris did it, it made public transport and bikesharing absolutely free. Also, the ban was not applicable to electric and hybrid cars. But the rule was struck off almost immediately because it cost the city 4 million euro, and led to immense dissatisfaction within the public.

So, when the city of Delhi, whose lungs are burning, and mouth dark black from all the smoking introduces such a measure, we need to be very skeptical. And this holds true for most cities in India. We have not invested in our public transport to able to provide our citizens with a viable, safe and accessible system which they can trust in. Whether we care to admit it or not, public transport is the avenue of the lower socio-economic strata because they simply have no other choice. Upward mobility in India is traced by this route: walk-bus-rickshaw-Honda Activa-hatchback car-sedan-SUV. Our public transport is so deplorable that private vehicle ownership has social aspirational value. Therefore, trying to suddenly fill this cavity with a ridiculously superficial solution like alternate day odd-even licence plate bans, is misguided and of no realconsequence, apart from opening one more pathway for corruption.

As a lifelong enthusiast of public transport, you would assume I would be delighted by this “anti-car” move. To be honest, I find it disheartening that such a crucial issue is being reduced to such an inefefctive policy decision.

There are solutions which work. For example, creation of Low Emission Zones (LEZs) which ban inefficient vehicles from city centres, forcing drivers to upgrade their cars, and have proven to be extremely successful in Europe. Penalise thsoe who are continue to run outdated lethal machines, instead of forcing them to buy cheap ones from olx or gaadi.com.

More importantly, making the city public transport friendly is crucial if we want to cut the smog.Few ideas off the top of my head.

  • Take away the laal-batti cars of all the ministers and babus, and give them State sponsored public transit passes.
  • Make every point on your map accessible to every point. Despite Bangalore’s pollution situation, it has been my experience that it has managed to master intra-city connectivity; if only people cared enough to use it.
  • Integrated multi-modal transport which ensure that people are not deterred by distances to main stations. Regularly plying buses or electric vans from neighbourhoods to the nearest metro station, and a bus stop every 500 metres.
  • A massive overhaul of the current cars, by criminalisation of possession of polluting vehicles.
  • A PUC check which actually means something apart from paying Rs. 100 to the official.
  • Increasing the number of female employees in public transport to half of all total employees.
  • Better use of technology and social media to inform people of their best possible transit routes, timetables in all languages.
  • Making our cities more pedestrian and bicycle friendly. People should be able to walk and ride their cycles without wondering whether they will reach home alive.

So unless we’re willing to all commit to a change in our consumption patterns, the smog’s here to stay. Shouldering the responsibility to take actual harsh and effective measures, to decrease both pollution and socio-economic disparities is necessary as opposed to maverick superficial measures like this licence plate scheme.


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