Column: Curing Kejriwal’s cough

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Updated: March 17, 2015 10:11:22 AM

Setting policy to tackle specific transport demands will help minimise Delhi’s air pollution

While we all sincerely hope that the enemas, potions, and yogic asanas prescribed by his naturopathy physicians in Bengaluru will cure Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s annoying cough, it may prove to be yet another instance of faith prevailing over reason. Kejriwal will probably get some relief for some time. However, come Dussehra, I am afraid, his cough will return with a vengeance.

The reason is Delhi’s appalling level of air-pollution which, earlier this month, claimed the life of one of India’s finest journalists, Vinod Mehta. Arvind has justified his subsidy of water supply by asserting that like air, the citizen should be entitled to free water. However, the air in Delhi is only notionally free to its citizens. They pay for it with their health and, sometimes, their lives.

Why is Delhi’s level of air-pollution so high? There are two main reasons. First, the burning of rice straw in millions of tonnes in Punjab and Haryana, shortly after the rice harvest in late-October. There are complex policy reasons underlying this practice (which Kejriwal can do little about). However, this lasts but a fortnight. For the rest of the year, the major reason is automobile emissions. Pollution levels are high, except that, during the monsoons, the rain washes away most of the pollution, and in the peak summer, the high level of air turbulence ensures rapid dispersal of emissions.

Look closely at the vehicles on the road during Delhi’s peak traffic hours. Almost all of them have but a single effective passenger (excluding the paid driver). The large numbers of cars on the road at these times ensures that traffic slows to a crawl. It also results in large-scale fuel wastage and the consequent high-levels of pollutant emission. Upgrading vehicle emissions standards to Euro IV or V may be of little help, considering that the existing vehicle stock would take at least ten years to be significantly eliminated; by then, the total vehicle population would have increased several-fold.

What is to be done? One answer, attempted in the past, is to enforce the eternal equality of the human race by forcing the car-wallahs on to buses, by squeezing their road space. This did not work, in yet another demonstration of the moral of the Aesop’s fable, The sun and the wind—that people do not change their behaviour under pressure, but do so if circumstances are created that make them want to do so.
A solution is only possible, if one understands the nature of urban-transport demand.

Demand for transport services in cities varies with time of day, day of the week, month of the year, and also evolves over time. People also have differing preferences for comfort levels, and their willingness to pay for these comfort levels. Such demand is both patterned, meaning that regularities are, in principle, observable—for example (but not limited to), commuter traffic—and non-patterned, for instance, a sudden visit to the emergency room of a hospital.

However, while transport demand is patterned, the actual patterns are complex. They may be thought of as having a “thick” and a “fine” structure. For example, the travel demand between South Delhi and New Delhi’s business districts between 9 and 10 am on weekdays would count as “thick” demand. Of this, the demand between 9.15 and 9.30 am on weekdays for travel between M-Block market in Greater Kailash and Sardar Patel roundabout on Sansad Marg, in airconditioned comfort with reclinable seats and piped Bollywood music for R50 a ride, would count as “fine” demand.

Patterned demand can, with the right policy, be met by mass transport modes. The latter can only be met by personal transport, or an efficient taxi service.

The key here is “mass”, and not “public” transport. Why is that? Public entities, such as DTC or DMRC, can only ascertain the “thick” demand patterns, which can help in designing the routes and timings of, say, metro rail, across major city locations. They cannot divine the “fine” structure of demand. This is not because public officials are lazy and inefficient, but because public entities must satisfy multiple layers of accountability with respect to each decision, which precludes experimentation. However, the fine-grained pattern of demand, as in the above example, may be discovered and responded to by operators whose livelihoods depend on doing so. In short, the “fine” patterns of demand may be met through competitive provision of mass transport services by private operators. This may help take a significant number of private vehicles off the road, at least during peak hours, saving fuel, and reducing air pollution.

In order to make such a policy work, the transport department needs to dampen the control-freak mindset of its policy makers. The only restrictions that need to be placed on such operators are with respect to safety of vehicles, absence of criminal records of drivers and other staff, traffic regulations applicable to all, and PUC certification of buses. No restrictions on numbers of operators or buses (no, they will not flood the streets; only as many will be on the roads as needed to transfer the travel-demand from cars to buses), or timings, or comfort levels, or fares, would be necessary. Operators need space to compete. Regulate every aspect, and one ends up with a Blue-Line-like situation, in which the only possible way of increasing revenues was for buses to race each other to the next stop. The perverse incentive structure led to many road deaths.
If this is done, Kejriwal could resume his morning constitutionals at a fast clip. They would not lead to the re-emergence of his cough. They would also do his blood sugar level much good.

The author is Distinguished Fellow and director, TERI

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