Pollution is now politically salient in national capital
The Arvind Kejriwal government has announced a seven-point agenda - the Parali Pradushan Action plan - in anticipation of pollution peaking again in Delhi during the winter. One of the key features of the plan is a proposal to reintroduce the odd-even scheme that rations the use of vehicles, from 4 to 15 November. In addition, the plan includes the distribution of face masks, measures to be implemented in 12 critical hotspots, a campaign against firecrackers and community laser shows during Diwali, and measures for dust control. While the exact parameters of the scheme are not yet known, the announcement is no doubt a bold political move. Air pollution impairs human health across India year-round, and yet the political class has been mostly unmoved by the scale of the problem.
The action plan suggests three significant shifts in the policy discourse on air quality governance. First, air pollution has gained political salience - at least in Delhi. Over the past few years, public demands for action against air pollution have grown louder. The Delhi government seems to have responded to this demand. The response perhaps is still not proportionate to the scale of the problem, and cleverly highlights one non-Delhi based pollution source -- crop burning -- but at least the needle has moved towards proactive policy measures.
Second, policy measures to mitigate air pollution in India have typically been reactive and ad hoc, often (grudgingly) responding to judicial directions. Kejriwal’s agenda, coming several weeks before the peak pollution season in the National Capital Region, appears to be a planned move – identifying, based on information and experience from past years, the crucial period when crop burning and the festival season, along with meteorological conditions, play havoc with air quality. A forward-looking policy process that is not caught unawares by a fairly predictable turn of events is a welcome change.
Third, the government is willing to put its heft behind pollution control measures with uncertain political payoffs. A mere months before state asssembly elections, the government is taking the risk of announcing measures whose “costs” (inconvenience to commuters using private vehicles for example) will be evident, but the “benefits” (improved air quality) difficult to perceive in real time, and possibly challenging to quantify conclusively even later.
In its previous iteration, the odd-even programme was implemented as two 15-day pilots in 2016. Compliance levels were generally high in both rounds, with the January round perhaps witnessing more enthusiastic participation than in April. In terms of air quality impact, the evidence seems mixed. Analysis by researchers of the Energy Policy Institute at University of Chicago, who included one of us at the time, used government monitoring data and found that there was a significant reduction in PM2.5 levels by 14-16% in January, but no significant dip in April (possibly due to warmer conditions and lower pollution levels). The results suggested that odd-even could be effective as an emergency measure during peak pollution episodes.
However, some other studies, using different methods, have disagreed about the impact of odd-even on air quality. During the implementation itself, there was criticism, given that pollution levels remained elevated. These reflect the inherent difficulty in judging the success of odd-even, and likely the other emergency measures. Despite these measures, pollution levels will almost certainly be very high; just not as high as they would otherwise have been. It is important for the government to specify clear benchmarks in advance for what success will look like, and set reasonable expectations. Equally, it should be cautious while declaring success later, and be able to justify any claims on air quality improvement transparently.
The action plan is an important effort towards creating buy-in from the public in the process of reducing air pollution. It places an onus on people - asking them to take some ownership of their contribution to the problem. Although the odd-even scheme is only a short-term emergency measure, it could aid modal shifts from private to public transport in the long term. At the individual level, it forces people to adopt a short-term behavioural change, while simultaneously exposing them to alternative lifestyle choices they could potentially make.
At the macro level, experience from these short durations of high usage of public transport could give crucial insights on how transit policy needs to be redesigned.
To tackle the challenge of air pollution in India, a virtuous cycle needs to play out successfully with political leadership playing a critical role. First, an informed public has to make focussed and forceful demands. Second, as the political class sees air pollution becoming vital to its voters, it champions policies addressing structural and collective action problems. Third, political backing strengthens enforcement resulting in a few early wins. These early wins further invigorate public demand, making more difficult policy decisions and reform efforts politically attractive, slowly making way towards better environment governance.
The Delhi government’s move is a good example of the first two steps of this cycle. Whether it is successful in delivering wins depends in part on the public being responsive, and responsible.
(Shibani Ghosh and Santosh Harish are Fellows at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi)