Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Why the rest of India needs the odd-even formula

The strength of the scheme is in the sense of empowerment it gives each citizen to participate in environmental decision-making

It’s a great start to a year when a green issue becomes a public issue. What environmentalists have been harping on for years has finally caught the attention of the politicians, the common man/woman on the street and, yes, the 9pm television debates.

While scientists are still debating whether the odd-even formula will bring down pollution levels, here’s what the formula has succeeded in doing—it has given the citizens of Delhi a chance to take charge.

Known for their flashy cars and political connections, the citizens of Delhi have, for now, embraced the inconvenient experiment at least for a fortnight. And take a look at the benefits—the roads are no longer choked with bumper-to-bumper traffic and it’s showing people that they can be part of the solution, not just the problem.

But India is not just Delhi or the National Capital Region. From policymakers to courts, efforts to clean the air have focused on the city; even the Supreme Court passed an order in December directing that polluting trucks not meant for the city should be diverted to other routes, thereby simply passing the problem on to other cities.

The fact is there are many cities across the country such as Lucknow, Ahmedabad, Muzaffarpur and Faridabad where concentrations of PM 2.5 (particulate matter that is 2.5 microns in width or smaller) have been much higher on several days in winter. Even a city like Bengaluru on some days has shown higher levels of pollution than Delhi.

In 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) compiled average annual PM 2.5 numbers for more than 1,600 cities across the world, including 124 from India. Delhi had the worst air quality in the world, but 12 other Indian cities were among the world’s worst 20—Patna, Gwalior, Raipur, Ahmedabad, Lucknow, Firozabad, Kanpur, Amritsar, Ludhiana, Allahabad, Agra and Khanna.

While the National Air Quality Index was launched with much aplomb, the fact is that 10 of India’s biggest cities do not have a single monitoring station.

And here’s why particulate matter produced primarily by power plants, industry and vehicles is deadly—it leads to cardio-respiratory problems such as strokes, heart attacks and cancer.

While the odd-even formula focuses on vehicular pollution, let us not forget that power plants too are contributing to high levels of air pollution. One of the key reasons why Delhi shut down a plant in Badarpur, a town on the city’s outskirts, was that it had the unique distinction of topping pollution charts, but what about power plants outside Delhi?

A study conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment in February 2015 found that 55% of the coal-based power plants were violating air pollution standards that are already extremely lax. Further, only about 50-60% of the 170 million-odd tonnes of fly ash generated by the sector is ‘utilized’; the remaining is dumped into poorly designed and maintained ash ponds, thus leaching into the soil and water and causing further pollution.

And that’s why the odd-even formula has become the symbol of a much-needed citizens’ environment movement that every city, town and village across India needs.

A 2015 study by Rohini Pande, the Mohammed Kamal professor of public policy at Harvard, along with collaborators from the University of Chicago and Yale University, shows that more than half of India’s population—660 million people—live in areas where fine particulate matter pollution is above our own standards of what is considered safe. Furthermore, 99.5% live in areas with air pollution above the WHO’s stricter guidelines for healthy air.

The researchers found that if India met its own air quality standards, those 660 million people would add about 3.2 years to their lives. So, lack of compliance with Indian air quality standards is affecting people’s health and costing citizens 2.1 billion life-years.

The strength of the odd-even formula is in the sense of empowerment it has given each citizen to participate in environmental decision-making. Garbage spilling out and potholed roads are the offshoots of urban living that leave most of us feeling helpless. What the odd-even formula has done is to empower each person in the city to take charge of the air we breathe.

Let’s now shift focus to the rest of India. And that really will be the new dawn for a Swachh Bharat.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist, journalist and author of Green Wars: Dispatches from a Vanishing World.

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