Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal pushing the Centre for Science and Environment’s (CSE) odd-even policy – odd-numbered cars can be driven only on Mondays/Wednesdays/Fridays/Sundays – as a solution to Delhi’s un-breathable air is supremely ironical. For, while the chief minister has latched on to the odd-even policy that CSE prescribes as an extreme emergency measure for short periods of time – Delhi’s particulate matter pollution was ‘severe’, or more than 4-times the permissible levels, in 22 days in November – he has jettisoned its larger anti-pollution plank of raising sales taxes on both diesel and diesel cars along with making it easier/cheaper to run buses; while the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor was floundering even under Kejriwal’s Congress predecessor, he has formally announced its closure.
To be sure, Delhi’s pollution mess is not of Kejriwal’s making, but has to do with decades of the central government massively subsiding diesel, as a result of which more than half the cars today run on diesel which is vastly more polluting. Under the current fuel norms, by law, a diesel car can emit 7.5 times the particulate matter than petrol can and 3 times more NOx; so, while more than a fifth of Delhi’s particulate pollution comes from personal vehicles, diesel’s share in this is overwhelming. Also, while Delhi’s metro was handed over to the dynamic E Sreedharan by the Sheila Dikshit government, the BRT was given step treatment, implemented in a lackadaisical manner by a public sector organization with the Delhi police actively opposed to it – had the BRT been properly implemented, the speed of buses would have increased manifold, making this the preferred option of even those choosing to run their 2/4-wheelers. As a result, while it was estimated Delhi needed 11,000 buses way back in even 2010, it has just around half that today and, thanks to the extreme congestion – which a properly functioning BRT would have fixed – even these buses don’t run at more than 75% of their capacity.
Kejriwal couldn’t do anything about the diesel subsidy which, in any case, was being curbed by the central government by the time he came to power. What he could do, however, was to improve the BRT’s functioning, raise the VAT on sales of diesel vehicles and those on diesel fuel from the current levels which are around 56% those on petrol – it is, of course, true that for this to work, neighbouring Haryana also needed to cooperate, otherwise people would simply buy their diesel/cars in Haryana. By exempting CNG vehicles from the odd-even rule, and lowering VAT on CNG, he could have given a fillip to the cleaner fuel. Nor has he moved on the parking plan – increase parking costs dramatically to discourage use of cars in more polluted areas and in peak hours – or on rewarding those who use buses; buses, more so since they run on CNG, are the most eco-friendly mode of transport to use, but Kejriwal has continued with the old policy of charging cars around Rs 1,300 per year as road tax versus around Rs 17,000 for a bus. A larger solution to Delhi’s pollution will have to wait till the two peripheral expressways around the capital are completed – this will ensure trucks, which account for around 15% of the capital’s pollution, bypass it – and till the central government decides to hike excise duties on diesel cars and diesel fuel and, of course, move quickly to more stringent fuel norms that reduce diesel pollution levels to close to those of petrol engines.