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Indian Capital Suspends Odd-Even Car Experiment To Curb Pollution


The Indian capital of New Delhi has some of the world's worst air. Authorities there say a recent experiment to reduce pollution was a success. For two weeks, drivers could only use the roads on certain days of the week according to whether they had odd or even-numbered license plates. Now the government says the experiment is on hold for at least the next few months. NPR's Julie McCarthy joins us from New Delhi to explain this.

Hey Julie.


SHAPIRO: Why are officials saying this experiment worked? How did it go?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, they're really chalking it up to the fact that there were just 9,000 violators in a city of more than 9 million cars. But the impact of this thing, Ari, is a matter of a lot of debate. The local authorities claim that this odd-even scheme helped drive down pollution by anywhere from 20 percent to 25 percent. That is being much debated. You've got studies that say, no, it was only 10 percent to 13 percent. You have others that claim the reduction was as high as 40 percent. So the data is not consistent, but certainly this was the no. 1 topic of conversation in the public. They were very engaged in this, and congestion was noticeably down and it was a pleasure driving around. The trips were faster, there were fewer cars, there was less idling in the car.

SHAPIRO: I have never heard anyone say driving in New Delhi is a pleasure.

MCCARTHY: (Laughter). Well, it was because you had a sense of space on the roads. Normally, you simply don't have that and there's a lot of time in traffic jams. There's - you know, you inch along in Delhi. That wasn't the case, that wasn't the case this time.

SHAPIRO: If the program seemed so successful, why is the government putting it on hold until May or June?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, there's not the sense of urgency in Delhi that you find in, say, Beijing. You know, even though Delhi is more polluted according to the World Health Organization, there's been an apathy here and a slowness to grasp the magnitude of the health problem. And now that the public is more interested, local authorities are saying, wait a minute, we want to fine tune this thing before we reinstate it. They'll need to expand the public transportation. The subways are jammed. They need more buses. They want to discourage people from gaming the system by buying a second car. They actually do that. And local politicians don't want to disrupt this all-important exam season which takes place in March and April. They want these kiddies to be able to be taken to school and back any day of the week by their parents. And they want to tweak exemptions. Women won't be exempt next time around. And motorcycles were exempt, but Ari, they also make up 60 percent or more of registered vehicles in this city. Not everybody has enough money to buy a car. That's a huge source of pollution. So how are they going to deal with them?

SHAPIRO: How else is the government trying to address pollution, which is such a huge problem in Delhi?

MCCARTHY: Well, the environmentalists want to see a congestion tax. It worked to great effect in London - as you well know - where you were simply charged to come into the center of the city. The city's going to need to regulate sources of pollution other than cars, other than vehicles, like the coal-burning plants that power this city. And of course the pollution crisis is compelling them to build a much more robust public transportation system - many more subway lines. But all that, Ari, takes a lot of time and a lot of money.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Julie McCarthy in New Delhi.

Thanks Julie.

MCCARTHY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.