Column: The side-effects of Delhi’s odd, even experiment

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Published: January 9, 2016 12:16:53 AM

If the city’s productivity doesn’t fall, the experience could be used to plan better policies to decongest cities

The Delhi government’s experiment with allowing odd/even numbered 4-wheelers on Delhi’s roads on odd/even dates is now eight days old. The scheme itself was introduced on a trial basis for two weeks (unless curbed by our increasingly hyper-activist courts) with the sole objective of reducing the dangerous levels of air pollution in the city. The jury is still out on if this objective is being met, and if so, if the reduction in air pollution is significant enough to call this exercise a success.

However, there is one very visible side effect of this experiment—a very noticeable (and welcome) reduction in road traffic congestion within the territory of Delhi. In the current week, business and social activity should have been back to the usual levels post the annual slowdown at year-end and the first few days of the New Year. While the Delhi government has closed all schools till January 15 and this could have some impact on private car trips (the bus count has been increased to cope with the expected increase in load on public transport, and hence there should be little or no impact on account of school buses being off the roads).

Had the public transport ridership (buses and metro) shown a substantial increase during these last 8 days, there would have been no surprise. However, as per various media reports, there is only a marginal increase in the ridership numbers of mass public transport. Had all those car-owners who were impacted on alternate days due to their specific car number chosen to take taxis & auto-rickshaws, then there would have been no or little reduction on road congestion. Carpooling, while theoretically a good idea, is not likely to have made a very significant impact either. There are also no reports of any mass leave taking or higher absenteeism, and hence it seems that functioning of offices and other establishments hasn’t had any significant loss of productivity due to absenteeism.

Hence, perhaps, there could be some other factors that could be at play which need to be understood and assessed more deeply, and hence for that reason, this experiment should be allowed to continue for the entire 15-day duration at this time. In fact, with suitable modifications, perhaps this experiment could be repeated later in the year even if the primary purpose then is to come up with a more lasting solution to the increasing traffic congestion in Delhi and other major cities across the nation.

To fully assess the impact of this experiment (besides measuring pollution levels before, during, and after the conclusion), both the Delhi government and various relevant central government departments and enterprises have to come together to collect and collate a diverse set of data. To start with, there should be an in-depth study of car usage pattern in Delhi and adjoining areas that should attempt to find out who uses the car, for what purpose, when, how many passengers per car trip, etc. There should also be an effort to find out net volume of sale of petrol and diesel in Delhi during and before/after the experiment to estimate the reduction in sale of fuel and thereby in road-trip-kilometres. Impact on retail sale (merchandise/ food services/ entertainment, etc) should also be estimated (assuming that some reduction would have happened in shopping/ leisure trips) and thereby any impact on tax receipts. E-commerce companies can perhaps be tapped to find out if their business from Delhi city increased during the 15 days of odd/even experiment (the hypothesis being that some of the physical shopping trips could have been replaced by e-tail channel). It would be far more difficult to estimate if there was any reduction (or even an increase due to lesser traffic congestion for some) in total economic output within Delhi because of this experiment but perhaps some effort could be made towards this.

If the assumption is empirically validated that, by and large, Delhi has been able to manage “commercial & personal” life-as-usual for a majority of its residents while reducing traffic congestion (and perhaps some pollution, too), then it would be a wonderful outcome of this experiment. This experience can then be used to come up with a more well-planned policy for the very highly congested urban India using a combination of measures to reduce number of cars on road (e.g. through substantially higher annual road taxes, price-parity between diesel and petrol in select metropolitan regions, dedicated car-pooling lanes for vehicles carrying 3 or more passengers, etc) and use/generation of additional resources to further strengthen cleaner fuel (e.g. CNG) or no-direct-emission (e.g. electric) mass and other public transport capacities.

The author is chairman & MD, Technopak

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