The odd-even vehicle rationing experiment in Delhi has restarted. Much of the debate around the issue has centered around assessments of the emission reductions from the first round. Critics have been quick to dub the experiment a failure based on these estimates. In fact, they have been unwilling to countenance anything other than the first best option of the development of a world-class public transport system as the solution to Delhi's pollution and congestion problem.
In this context, going beyond the immediate impact on emission levels and so on, a few observations.
1. The road rationing program introduced by the Delhi Government constitutes a paradigm shift in the way governments across this country have addressed pollution and congestion. They have largely revolved around emission norms and road widenings and flyover construction. This is the first time that a government in India has consciously decided to ration road usage, thereby directly address both problems. In this sense, the January experiment was India's crossing the Rubicon moment in policy making to address urban vehicle pollution and congestion. It has undoubtedly lowered the political and social bar for similar policies in other cities across the country.
2. I am inclined to believe that governments like the current one in Delhi, despite their political populism, are more likely to be able to introduce such policies, which directly impact a very large and vocal electoral base. Such governments are as much vulnerable to reckless populism as capable of progressive policies. The nature of their evolution and network of influencers are such. Traditional political parties are less likely to be creatures of such evolution.
3. Reflecting their growing pre-eminence in policy making, the courts, in the form of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) this time, played a critical role in forcing the Delhi Government to bite the bullet with road rationing. After all, the original thrust came from the NGT directions to improve air quality. This is a reminder that such public policy mutations (deviations from the norm) are more likely to happen when the moment is ripe, both in terms of the political and social environment as well as the coincidental confluence of supportive coalition partners (Delhi Government, NGT, and civil society organizations like Center for Science and Environment).
4. When the program was initiated, there were apprehensions about the Delhi government's ability to enforce the ban. Critics suggested that people will forge number plates or even just ignore the ban. While this has undoubtedly happened, it has been far less than anticipated or in any case, atleast less enough not to warrant headline news. Is this evidence of much higher civic spiritedness among Delhi's population than credited? Does this mean that the citizens have the appetite to tolerate more such paradigm shifting public policy interventions.
5. There is much to compliment about the manner in which the policy has been rolled out. Its iterative and slowly phased approach apart from diffusing discontent has also given the government valuable feedback to constantly improve the implementation design. It has been classic two-steps forward, one-step backward.
6. Finally, unlike the first round in early January, this time, the Delhi Government has exempted vehicles running on Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). This has prompted a scramble among car owners to have their vehicles retrofitted with CNG. Given Delhi's success with CNG retrofitting of public transport buses and auto rickshaws, this may be a trigger for large-scale conversion of even private vehicles. What if the program becomes a catalyst to inculcate the habit of car-pooling among Delhi residents? What if the program works at the margins to tip over some share of car residents to embrace the metro and keep them there? What if it leads to more rationing policies like number plate licensing? Such unintended consequences of public policy are a strong reminder to critics of such policies who evaluate them on narrow and immediate quantitative parameters. Development is hard and complex. We need to be humble enough to accept this before trigger-happy assessments based on superficial considerations.
If this policy can be sustained and bear fruits, even if unintended, over a longer time, it would be a terrific achievement for the Delhi Government. Transport related problems, apart from housing, have been the most intractable of urban problems. Governments which have successfully addressed them have captured the public imagination. After all local residents fondly remember Ken Livingston in London for the congestion pricing scheme and Enrique Penelosa in Bogota for the TransMilenio BRT system.