The odd-even scheme must rank as one of the most juvenile and myopic responses in the world to combat air pollution. The seven-year-old policy, especially in New Delhi, of allowing cars with ending in odd and even numbers on the roads on odd and even days of the month, is back in debate as pollution rose to alarming levels. Courts have weighed in on its efficacy or lack of it; the Supreme Court described it as “mere optics”. Pollution management experts, among others, have pointed out its limited impact, if at all. And it is clearly not a long-term solution in Delhi – or in other cities either – that has seen more days of ‘severe’ to ‘severe+’ polluted air than any other in the past seven years.
There are a number of issues with the odd-even scheme or policy. The first is that, whenever and wherever it has been rolled out, the authorities have had to provide for some exemptions of cars which can legally circumvent the policy, including cars driven by women and so on. These exemptions blunt the policy; besides, people are not sure about the nature of exemptions which have changed every time the policy is enforced. Secondly, the policy is aimed at private cars; two-wheelers and public vehicles, however polluting, are not mandated to follow it, which raises the question about the percentage of private cars in a city. In Delhi or Mumbai, it hovers around 25 percent; a policy that does not include all vehicles is self-limiting. Thirdly, studies elsewhere have shown that the odd-even policy tends to increase driving as people make longer or more trips in the car allowed that day thus negating the cap on number of cars.
There is also a core issue with the odd-even policy. Given its inherent limitations and flaws, and therefore marginal impact on air pollution, authorities should know better than to pull it out every time that a city’s air goes into the 300+ or 400+ categories on the Air Quality Index. Yet, they continue to do so. This is a seasonal tactic, a gimmick, to show that they are seized of the situation. Clearly, what is needed here is a comprehensive and inter-sectional plan that fairly and squarely addresses all the sources of air pollution. In cynically rolling out gimmicks like the odd-even policy, the authorities do themselves and all residents of highly-polluted cities a huge disservice.