In an ambitious bid to curb toxic levels of air pollution engulfing the Indian capital, the Delhi government recently launched a controversial odd-even road-rationing scheme. But how is the experiment working?
Under the new formula, introduced on January 1, private vehicles with license numbers ending with odd and even numbers are allowed to take to the streets only on alternate days. That means that if vehicles ending with even numbers (2, 4, 6, 8 and 0) are permitted to ply the roads one day, then the following day only those with odd numbers (1, 3, 5, 7, and 9) are allowed to venture out, and so on.
The measure also foresees fines amounting to about 2,000 rupees ($30) for offenders.
In recent years, the rapid rise in car ownership in Delhi has contributed significantly to the surging levels of dangerous toxins clogging the city's air.
This is why the Delhi administration, led by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, introduced the new rule for 15 days to test the results and its potential long-term applicability in a city deemed both the world's most polluted and filthiest.
Thousands of traffic personnel and volunteers fanned out across the city to ensure compliance, while hidden cameras have been set up to identify those who violate the rule. Over 500 violations were reported on the first day of the trial period.
Studying the impact
The government says public response to the scheme has been overwhelmingly positive. "This is truly encouraging. Compliance has been good, which shows that everyone wants to live in a clean environment," Manish Sisodia, Delhi's deputy chief minister, told DW. Sisodia said he was using his bicycle to commute to the Delhi Secretariat on the days he isn't allowed to take the car.
An increasing number of vehicles on Delhi's streets has contributed to the city's worsening air quality
Furthermore, authorities hope the trial could provide a viable roadmap for the future. Transport Minister Gopal Rai noted that the Delhi government would "review the response and the effect of the drive" before deciding on the next course of action.
To analyze the scheme's impact, the government has identified about 200 spots in the capital to measure air quality. Environmentalists like Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment, an Indian NGO, also back the move, pointing out that pollution in Delhi has reached hazardous levels and that such radical steps are what it takes to tackle the problem.
"I definitely welcome this. It will inconvenience people but emergency situations require tough measures. At the end of it, we all want clean air to breathe," said Narain.
Even the judiciary has come out in support of the odd-even policy, with the Chief Justice of India's Supreme Court, T. S. Thakur, terming it a "great idea," and saying he would contemplate organizing a carpooling service for the top court's judges.
A lack of alternatives
The policy, however, has also drawn sharp criticism from opposition parties in Delhi such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which holds power in the federal government.
They argue that the scheme would not have any significant effect since people would buy a second car or fake their vehicles' number plates to outwit restrictions. Others have also suggested that the short-staffed police force would find it impossible to rein in violators.
"This is a scheme which is poorly conceived," Meenakshi Lekhi, a BJP MP, told DW. "Is this just a one-off move? Why has the government not articulated a long-term plan?" she questioned.
While critics agree that action is needed to address air quality problems in Delhi, they also point out that the road-rationing policy - which has been tried and tested in several other countries - fails to provide a viable long-term solution, particularly given the inadequacy of public transportation alternatives in the city.
Notwithstanding some improvement in Delhi's public transport infrastructure in recent years following the building of the city's metro rail and the introduction of environmentally friendly buses, many areas remain barely connected to the transport network.
Moreover, the city's pedestrian infrastructure - including pavements, road crossings and street-lighting - is in poor shape, while there is little road space for cyclists. These problems, coupled with rising incomes, have helped boost private car ownership in Delhi, which currently has over 8.5 million private vehicles and is adding almost 1,500 new cars everyday.
A long road ahead
But despite the criticism and doubts about the workability of the scheme, a concerted campaign by the government to show how air quality was getting from bad to worse and exposing people to high risks of respiratory and cardiovascular problems seems to have paid off.
The Delhi metro is running over 1,000 extra trips a day to cope with the extra pressure on the public transport network
For instance, in order to cope with the odd-even 15-day-long regime, many employers and housing associations have launched carpooling services. And to deal with the extra pressure on the public transport network, around 3,000 private buses have also been put into service, while the Delhi metro is running over 1,000 extra trips a day.
Paramjeet Singh, a software engineer who commutes some 25 kilometers everyday to work, has been carpooling. "It's been tough for the last three days but some friends got together and decided that this was the best option. Let's hope something good comes out of this," said Singh.
Manish Verma, a receptionist at a corporate firm who has regularly driven to work, has decided to use the metro.
"This is a small sacrifice. It is inconvenient but I am keeping the bigger picture in mind - a vision of a cleaner Delhi." Still, say observers, the real test for the authorities in the Indian capital will be to agree on a workable long-term plan to curb pollution following the results of the latest experiment.