How to deal with Facebook’s Free Basics

January 28, 2016, 5:40 AM IST in ET Commentary | Edit Page, India | ET

By Samir Saran & Arun Mohan Sukumar

Original link is here

In his monograph, The History of Computing in India (1955-2010), Indian Institute of Science professor V Rajaraman notes the work of the Dandekar Committee on Automation set up by the government in 1969 to assess whether computers would put Indians out of jobs. These were the heady days of socialism in India, and our computing sector was dominated then by one global giant: International Business Machines (IBM).

IBM had a difficult relationship with the Indian government right from the days of Jawaharlal Nehru. It was battling a hostile regulatory environment with capital controls and local manufacturing requirements. But the straw that broke the camel’s back — leading to IBM quitting India for decades — was the Dandekar Committee report.

Egged on by vocal labour unions, the committee recommended sweeping restrictions on the “use of computers in banks, government departments, private companies and insurance organisations”. Parliament was convinced that the introduction of computers would “increase efficiency”, but opted against the “social cost of computerisation”.

Today, we are in the middle of a noisy debate on Free Basics, a platform devised by Facebook for free “access to useful services on mobile phones in markets where internet access may be less affordable”. The debate has been characterised by extreme opinions. Some have argued for a complete ban of the initiative, pointing out that Free Basics will be a walled garden that conditions access to information for millions of Indians. Those across the aisle view this as an ‘elite’ argument, and see Free Basics as a tool to provide affordable access to first-time users, who can then choose to go beyond the initiative’s services.

2016 is not 1969, and Facebook is not IBM. But the public policy questions around Free Basics — affordable access, consumer choice, free speech — will determine India’s internet landscape for years to come. Here are some markers for India’s regulators to evaluate this debate.

Hang Around with the Cable

Consider a ‘must-carry, must-provide’ rule: The ‘must-carry’ rule, present in broadcasting rule books in India and the US, imposes an obligation on cable TV networks to carry public or local broadcasters. Its corollary, the ‘must-provide’ rule, requires channels to provide their content to all networks without discrimination. Were the ‘must-carry, must-provide’ rule be transposed on to the Free Basics context, it would require Facebook to carry applications without discrimination on its platform.

Conversely, internet applications would be platform-agnostic, providing the same content to Free Basics as they do to other such initiatives. The rule would provide a level playing field for emerging startups and local (language) content providers, who would have the same opportunity to feature on Free Basics as Facebook’s home-grown applications. Qualitative standards can be enforced by the zero-rating platform, but evaluated by the regulator.

Regulatory commitment to free speech: Zero-rated plans like Free Basics can have varying effects on free speech and access to information. Do Indian regulators have the policy tools to correctly evaluate the effects?

Last year, a UN high-level meeting to review the World Summit on Information Society goals concluded that the free flow of information can take place through nine policy interventions, including “open access to data”, “fostering of competition”, “creation of transparent, predictable, independent and non-discriminatory regulatory and legal systems”, “efficient allocation of spectrum” and “infrastructure-sharing models”.

Rather than second-guessing the impact of Free Basics on free speech, the government should put in place regulatory regimes that make this assessment more accurate. These nine areas make for a good start.

Skip the development Kool-Aid: Whatever Free Basics may claim to offer, it is first and foremost an initiative advanced by a for-profit corporation. Corporations should not define India’s development agenda, but their projects should refine it.

In the short term, regulators should assess Free Basics on three simple questions. One, has it limited or facilitated the entry of new data-farming platforms in the market? Two, does it discriminate between internet applications, especially local language content and emerging startups? And three, has it restricted or broadened consumers’ choice on eservices and applications?

In the long term, regulators should also see Free Basics as a test bed for data protection norms in India. If public services and payment portals were to be part of zero-rated platforms, what would happen to sensitive data of Indians stored in such applications? Free Basics is as much about the privacy of data as it is about net neutrality.

The Book’s Face Value

Assess through empirical evidence: Assessing empirical evidence of Free Basics’ impact on the market is not easy. But in the absence of precedent, there is little choice. Regulators could recommend that Facebook deploy Free Basics for a limited window — say, six months — in line with the ‘must-carry, must-provide’ rule. At the end of this ‘trial run’, the programme would automatically be rolled back, providing both regulators and researchers with valuable data to assess its impact on connectivity, consumer choice and competition.

The Free Basics debate is a classic sign of the digital economy teething. How we respond will determine its forecast for decades to come. It is also a choice between being a ‘ban’ economy to evolving to one that ‘regulates’.

Saran is vice-president, Observer Research Foundation, and Sukumar heads the Cyber Initiative, ORF


Politics / Globalisation

The Heat: The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank officially opens

CCTV America, January 18, 2016

The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is now officially open for business. How important is the AIIB for China and the global economy?

China’s President, Xi Jinping, has called the opening of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank an historic moment.The formal inauguration ceremony took place in Beijing on Saturday. The new international development bank has 57 member states and is expected to lend billions of dollars over the coming years.


The Heat was joined by the following guests to discuss:

  • From New York is Victor Gao who is the Director of the China National Association of International Studies.
  • From London is Duncan Innes-Ker who is regional director for Asia at The Economist Intelligence Unit.
  • In the Washington, D.C. studios for CCTV America is Pieter Bottelier who is Senior Adjunct Professor of China Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
  • From New Delhi is Samir Saran who is the Senior Fellow and Vice President at the Observer Research Foundation



The Heat: The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank officially opens

Sequence 03.00_00_59_16.Still001

The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is now officially open for business. How important is the AIIB for China and the global economy?

China’s President, Xi Jinping, has called the opening of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank an historic moment.

The formal inauguration ceremony took place in Beijing on Saturday. The new international development bank has 57 member states and is expected to lend billions of dollars over the coming years.

CCTV’s Wang Tongxuan reports from Beijing.


The Heat was joined by the following guests to discuss:

  • From New York is Victor Gao who is the Director of the China National Association of International Studies.
  • From London is Duncan Innes-Ker who is regional director for Asia at The Economist Intelligence Unit.
  • In the Washington, D.C. studios for CCTV America is Pieter Bottelier who is Senior Adjunct Professor of China Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
  • From New Delhi is Samir Saran who is the Senior Fellow and Vice President at the Observer Research Foundation.

Read more:
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In the News

‘Outside ideas’ trickle in as think tanks set up base

| TNN | Jan 17, 2016, 04.28 AM IST

Original link is here

New DELHI: With top US think tanks setting up offices in India, the Indian marketplace for ideas is beginning to buzz. This week, Carnegie Endowment announced it would be opening its India office. It will follow Brookings Institution which has been around for a couple of years now. As the nature of Indian governance, policy-making and the international context evolves rapidly, the hope is that these outside “inputs” would help to create more “informed” decisions by government.

These think tanks are coming into India at a time when there is a flowering of Indian research organisations here. The government for long operating with brahminical inscrutability, is more welcoming of ideas, inputs and research from outside.

C Raja Mohan, founder-director of Carnegie’s India office said he envisages a triad of sectors which will benefit from the think tank – “foreign policy and security, politics of India’s economic reforms and the rapidly developing technology policymaking space.” Brookings and Carnegie, voted the top think tanks in the world, have extensive experience in producing policy inputs for the US government.

Indian think tanks too are evolving rapidly. The best known, Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and Centre for Policy Research (CPR) will inundate your inbox, and have increased their government footprint in recent years. Their playing fields mostly remain in the realm of foreign and security policy with a clutch of former diplomats and military officers taking the lead in the ideas and opinions bazaar, relying on their long engagement with government.

There are also a growing number of organisations working closely with the government in its public diplomacy outreach, holding seminars and big think-fests. The MEA-MOD sponsored IDSA and ICWA are the official organisations in this field. But this year, MEA is working with ORF to execute one of its three flagship events – the Raisina Dialogues in spring, and with Mumbai-based Gateway House for the Gateway of India Dialogues on geo-strategic and geo-economic issues respectively.

Samir Saran of ORF said the Raisina Dialogue this year would feature about 100 speakers from 30 countries, but in a few years they hope to scale it up to become a second Shangrila Dialogue (organised by London-based IISS) which prompts defence ministers and experts from round the world to flock to Singapore every summer.

ORF has also got into the pleasurable business of Track 1.5 dialogues with select countries. Saran says they now conduct dialogues with France, Australia, BRICS and now Egypt. The frontrunner in this area is the Ananta Aspen Centre which has been running the longest and possibly most influential dialogues with US, China, Israel and Turkey, Singapore and Bhutan and an India-Japan-US trilateral, which paved the way for the official dialogue that started a few years later.
The government used think tanks extensively during climate change negotiations, where, the space is filled by specialised organizations like CEEW, CSE and TERI. Saran of ORF says “some sectors need outside expertise like outer space, Indian Ocean etc. We are developing our expertise in these areas.”

 How does the government evaluate the inputs from think tanks? The foreign ministry is the biggest consumer of these ideas from ‘outside’. In the last year, foreign secretary S Jaishankar has placed additional responsibility on a virtually defunct Policy Planning division. The ministry has broken new ground by hiring consultants not employed by the government. But in the new atmosphere of the state interacting with think tanks, the experience for government has not been one of unalloyed satisfaction.

“There are some brilliant minds out there,” said an official on condition of anonymity. “But most of the research papers we see are too theoretical or academic in nature. We need them to be consistent and more policy relevant.” Giving examples from the US, he said academics like Ashley Tellis provide detailed policy inputs to the US government. “We need more of those. For this, we need research organisations to talk to government much more.” Researchers say government officials are very hard to access, and this limits their sources.

On the brighter side, foreign and security policies have many voices in the marketplace today. It’s trade, commerce etc that have very few outside think tanks providing inputs. The government has its own – ICRIER, NIPFP and Institute of Economic Growth, but in the private space there are few of the number-crunchers that governments could use.

Raja Mohan says partly this is because governments have been unusually welcoming of outside economic thinking and economists within government. From P C Mahalanobis to Raghuram Rajan, India has been very accommodating of different economic brains. However, countries like South Korea show much more is possible – their economic and trade think tanks provide crucial inputs to their trade negotiators which may explain why Korea is more willing to engage the world on trade issues, unlike India.


Deconstructing the Conference of Parties, 21, at Paris

Samir Saran| Shubh Soni

What was at stake at COP21?

The meeting of world leaders at Paris for the Conference of Parties (COP) 21 was being seen by the international community as a landmark opportunity to seize the momentum for decisive climate action. Nations, institutions, corporations and individuals alike were looking to this meet in Paris to deliver a legally binding and workable agreement, which would ensure temperatures did not rise above two degree Celsius by the end of this century and indeed strive for limiting the temperature rise to the 1.5 degree Celsius mark. The developing world in particular was seeking a commitment on financial and technological flows, which would enable them to mitigate and adapt to the ongoing and impending impacts of climate change. The stakes had never been higher –to get 192 countries to sign off on such an agreement would require both shrewd diplomacy, and the moral and political will of world leaders, to act on the biggest threat facing our planet.

To fully appreciate what was at stake in Paris at COP21, it is important to look back at four previous climate summits –COP3 at Kyoto, COP15 at Copenhagen, COP19 at Warsaw and COP20 at Lima. During COP3, the world agreed to the ‘Kyoto Protocol,’which acknowledged historical responsibility of the developed world to combat climate change. The agreement institutionalised the concept of Common But Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR) by drawing up a list of developed countries, known as Annex 1, which committed themselves to targets for cutting or slowing down their emissions of greenhouse gases that adversely impact the climate.[1]

However, a lot of what was agreed at COP3 was undone at Copenhagen. The developing world was left disappointed at COP15 as the international target of cutting emissions by 80% by 2050 was dropped, along with the target of ensuring global temperature does not rise above 1.5 degree Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. Moreover, the remark made by the United States’ president that developing countries should be “getting out of the habit”of looking at previous agreements, which made a distinction between developed and developing countries, was considered a serious setback, and was seen as a tactic by the developed world to wriggle its way out of its responsibility to address climate change.[2]

COP15 at Copenhagen was a failed culmination of the process started at COP13 at Bali, most of which was ultimately completed at Cancun during COP16. The Paris process began with the The Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) at COP17 at Durban and the concept of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) was formulated at Warsaw during COP19 –where it was agreed that countries were to submit their respective INDCs prior to the commencement of COP21. The INDCs were further institutionalised at COP20 as Lima’s ‘Call for Climate Action’dedicated eleven of its 103 clauses to the INDCs, and it was agreed that these individual country commitments were going to be the central feature of global climate action post 2020.

Once all countries had declared their INDCs, the stage was set for Paris to bring all countries to the table and flesh out a global agreement.

Key ActorsUS, EU, China, India, Africa

Even though 192 countries were present at Paris and a successful agreement would require all of them to sign on, the narrative of the summit was to be dominated by five actors –S, the European Union, China, India and Africa.

The US went into the climate negotiations looking to assure the world that joint cooperation on climate change was the only way forward. The US could not be seen as the flag-bearer of the developed world trying to force an agreement that would severely constrain the economic development of developing countries. A repeat of the upheaval at Copenhagen needed to be avoided at all costs. And to achieve these goals, the US made significant efforts to showcase its leadership on climate action. The Climate Action Plan, which aims to reduce emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, was designed in such a way that it would not be held hostage by the divisive political narrative in the country (however, certain elements of this plan are being legally challenged by state governments). The American delegation also assured the developing world of its efforts to mobilise $100 billion. However, America’s weak INDC declaration –many felt the leader ought to lead by example and not hide behind domestic pressure –left enough room for scepticism heading into the summit.[3]

The failure of the Copenhagen summit was felt the hardest by the EU, as the continent had invested the most domestic and diplomatic stock at COP15. At Paris, then, the objective of the EU was to re-establish its agency as a leading global actor on not just climate change, but also on international diplomacy. And it was not just COP15 that had weakened its agency –the financial crises of 2010, and the recent political disruptions in Ukraine, have meant the legitimacy of the ‘Union’is now under intense scrutiny. Moreover, external factors, such as the refugee crises in West Asia and the backlash against those seeking shelter in the old continent, meant Europe desperately needed a positive outcome at COP21. France, in this instance, was not playing host as a western European power, but was representing the entire continent. On specific details of the negotiations, Europe had nuanced differences with both the US and the developing world. With America, the conflict was on the legal nature of the outcome as the US, due to its domestic political dynamics, was incapable of signing a strong legal document which Europe desired. With India and China, the disagreement was on mitigation efforts, since these two countries and the rest of the developing world argued for protecting their carbon space for economic growth while seeking greater commitment from the developed world.

As the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, all eyes were on what the Chinese INDCs entailed. Following the successful bilateral meeting between President Obama and President Xi Jingping, China reiterated its ambitions to lower carbon emissions intensity by 60-65 percent from 2005 levels, increase non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20 percent, and increase the forest stock volume by around 4.5 billion cubic metres on the 2005 level. Coming into the summit, Warwick J. McKibben of the Brookings Institute found that the targets announced by China would mean the country faced the second highest economic cost to GDP of all countries modelled –a significant commitment by the Chinese.[4]

Coming into Paris, India was carrying the unfair tag of a spoiler in climate debates –a country unrelenting in its position to give up its dependence on carbon and fossil fuels. In this context, the Indian INDCs and the Indian delegation at Paris looked to achieve two objectives –to highlight to the world one, India’s leadership on renewable energy, and two, India’s structural dependence on coal for the foreseeable future (unlike China which is now at a stage in its economic growth where it can transition towards green energy). India also made clear that global technology and financial regimes needed to evolve and create “a  regime  where  facilitative  technology  transfer  replaces  an  exploitative  market  driven  mechanism  [which] could  pave  the  way  for  a  common  understanding  of  universal  progress.”[5]

The African continent contributes least to climate change, both in absolute and per capita terms. An entire continent, with 54 countries, accounts for only 3.8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. And yet, despite having minimal emission levels, the continent is the most vulnerable to global warming. Its high dependence on low-yielding agriculture for food and income means even if global warming is restricted to two degrees Celsius, much of southern and central Africa would be at risk of severe drought, while east Africa will face the brunt of large-scale floods. The negative impacts on human development indicators, from health to child educational performance, will have serious and adverse impact on any progress made by individual countries.[6] For Africa therefore, the Paris summit was important not just from a mitigation perspective, but also from a climate change adaptation point of view. In contrast to the developed world, and much of the developing world, the African continent and small island states needed a positive signal on adaptation finance (thus far most of the funds for climate action have primarily focused on mitigation) and the inclusion of ‘loss and damage’in the agreement. The latter in particular was of critical importance to these two regions, as economic cost related to loss and damage can be very high.

In addition to these nations and groupings of nations, there were other significant actors who had a decisive impact on the outcome. For instance, least developing nations, the Like Minded Group of Developing Countries and Brazil-South Africa-India-China groupings wanted differentiation in climate action and significant space for their domestic economies to grow. The Alliance of Small Island States demanded greater global ambition on ensuring global temperature rise be restricted to 1.5 degree Celsius.

The Paris Agreement

In the context of what happened at Copenhagen, and the following COPs at Warsaw and Lima, Paris made significant gains in getting the climate agenda back on track. Many positives can be taken away from the agreement, particularly from a developing country perspective, and more specifically from an Indian point of view. The biggest takeaway was that this agreement was an all-round diplomatic success – with all countries but Nicaragua on board and no public display of acrimony between the global ‘North’and the global ‘South.’

From an Indian perspective, while the inclusion of the phrase ‘climate justice’only in the preamble weakens its larger mandate, it is still a step in the right direction for the developing world, sufficiently that the UN has for the first time acknowledged it in the final agreement. Moreover, several of the provisions of the agreement incorporate the foundations of the concept of climate justice, i.e., historical responsibility of the developed world to correct the ‘original sin’committed by them, of leading by example by adopting more sustainable lifestyles, and the acknowledgment of the fact that those who have contributed least to global warming are the most vulnerable to its impact.

Additionally, the Paris agreement, while not specifically mentioning CBDR, incorporates within it both this principle and the notion of equity, albeit in a slightly nuanced manner. Several provisions of the agreement are predicated on these concepts, none more so than the one on the long-term global goal. The agreement makes it clear that there will be no peak emission targets for developing countries for the time being, giving these nations adequate carbon space and the corresponding development space. From an Indian perspective, it gives the country enough room to manoeuvre by recognising its exceptional status as a country with the fastest growing economy and the best chance the world has to eradicate large-scale poverty.

On highly contested topics such as mitigation and finance, characteristics of climate justice can be found in the agreement. On finance, making the $100 billion agreed in Copenhagen the floor (minimum)amount to be mobilised by the developed world to assist climate action of developing nations achieved the twin objectives of increasing the base amount and incorporating differentiation. Moreover, finance will be provided for both mitigation and adaptation initiatives. On mitigation, keeping the should/shall ‘typography error’aside, differentiation is focused both on ‘scale’and ‘nature’–developed countries will take the lead and have the responsibility of achieving absolute reduction in emissions, while developing nations will continue efforts under nationally determined circumstances (thus taking into account the challenges of lack of energy access, unsustained economic growth, and the simultaneous objective of poverty alleviation facing these latter).

The allusion to the word ‘sustainable’in Article 2, which focuses on purpose, and Article 4 on mitigation, links the Paris Agreement with the Sustainable Development Goals agenda agreed to in 2015. This is of particular importance for the developing world as the SDGs, with their 17 goals and 169 targets, give prime importance to poverty eradication, and endorse within them infrastructure development and manufacturing-led industrialisation. By situating climate change within the overall context of sustainable development, the agreement further allows significant development space to developing nations.

While a differentiated transparency framework could not be established, the framework agreed to cover not only action of individual nations, but also the necessary support developed nations are required to extend for climate action. Moreover, the agreement also allows enough flexibility to developing nations even as they declare their efforts –the concept of CBDR is maintained, as emission cuts can be declared according to national circumstances and the respective capacity of nations to act. In a particular win for the Indian delegation, its demand to linking capacity building with transparency was met.

Finally, while the relationship between the Agreement and the Convention remains precarious, particularly with the US insisting dropping the words “under the Convention,” Article 2.1 of the agreement and Paragraph 1 of the COP decision do establish a subsidiary relationship of the agreement to the Convention. However, developing countries, particularly India, need to keep re-emphasising this demand and ensure a deeper relationship between the two as the agreement is fleshed out and implemented in the months ahead.

However, the agreement may disappoint developing countries on certain counts. For instance, on finance, Article 2.1 (c) states that “[m]aking financial flows consistent with a pathway towards low GHG emissions and climate resilient development.” Including this statement, despite strong opposition, could be interpreted as encouraging an era of ‘green conditionalities’for development and infrastructure finance. Following the decision of the US export-import bank to shift funding away from coal plants, such language does add to developing world scepticism.

Furthermore, the transparency framework will be built upon the existing international assessment and review and international consultations and analysis arrangements, and much can change from now till when the modalities are finalised. From a developing country perspective, the details of the framework must incorporate a common matrix on climate finance –an aspect on which there is currently no consensus.

Road ahead for India

India highlighted in its NDCs that over the next decade and a half its electricity demand is set to increase from 776 TWh in 2012 to 2,499 TWh in 2030.[7] This increase in demand is borne out of the country’s efforts to industrialise, urbanise, eradicate poverty and provide its population with a higher standard of living. This industrialisation will require bolstering the manufacturing sector, building reliable infrastructure and ensuring rapid urbanisation. Thus, despite efforts to strengthen its renewable energy sector, the majority of India’s energy needs will be met through coal and fossil fuels. In light of what was achieved at Paris, it is clear that the agreement allows India enough room to manoeuvre and undertake an industrialisation process largely predicated on these two sources of energy.

On the renewable energy front, as these authors have argued in a recent publication,[8] India already punches well above its weight when compared to the US, China and Japan, and is only marginally behind Germany. The INDC document submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change also highlights that between 2002 and 2015, the share of renewable grid capacity has increased over six times, from 2% (3.9 GW) to around 13% (36 GW). In its nationally determined contribution, the government has made clear its intention to significantly scale up these efforts to achieve the target of 175 GW renewable energy capacity in the next few years.[9] Prime Minister Modi’s Solar Alliance with 120 countries is one such effort aimed at capitalising India’s leadership and the global momentum on green energy.

The success of these efforts, however, requires technological and financial flows from the developed world to make renewable sources easily accessible and affordable for India’s 300 million poor people. Unfortunately, as per the existing property regimes, the cost of green energy installations in countries that have the potential to ramp up such installations the fastest and widest, such as India, is 24% to 32% more costly.[10] It is therefore in India’s and the world’s interest to develop an Indian model of industrialisation that relies significantly on green sources of energy catering to the aspirations and needs of the people at the bottom of the pyramid. Such a successful model can then be replicated in others parts of Asia and Africa.

In this context, Paris is the beginning of a process, which could take up to two years during which ‘t’s will have to be crossed and ‘i’s dotted. Paris has given sufficient negotiation space to all stakeholders without meeting the wish list of any single actor completely. The interpretation, implementation and fleshing out of what was achieved at Paris is still ahead of us, and each party will have to brace itself for fresh rounds of determined negotiations to secure their own specific national objectives based on their circumstances. For India the objectives are threefold. First is to mobilise global support and domestic resources to develop a robust climate adaptation framework. Second is to ensure that adequate funds and finances are available for it to secure its lifeline energy at affordable prices and complete its industrialisation project and offer better life to its people. And, finally, it must seize the opportunity to develop a ‘clean energy’growth model, foster product and process innovation and develop an “India Model”that could be replicable and a benchmark for others further below on the development ladder. It will need to ensure that the global climate agenda allows and supports these rational ambitions.


Forget Odd and Even, Delhi Needs a Total Disruption of its Transport Model

by Samir Saran and Prashant Kumar, January 5, 2016, The Wire

Original link is here 

The present attempt to reduce the number of cars on the road is well-intentioned but misguided in the long-run unless there is the political will to adopt a wider set of restrictions

Delhi Traffic Police issue a ticket to a motorist on the Delhi Gurgaon expressway for violating the Odd- Even scheme on Monday. Credit: PTI

The Aam Aadmi Party government’s odd/even formula to manage Delhi’s traffic and curb pollution has been met with extreme opinions and impulsive reactions. Some have applauded Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s attempt to tackle these two seemingly intractable problems, while others, mostly those inconvenienced by the regulation, or by his style of politics, have been quick to criticise the plan.

The question, however, is not whether the odd/even formula will be complied with fully or will be spectacularly successful. Similar strategies have failed in other mega cities and have had modest success in some. More crucial is whether this new rule can serve as a catalyst for disrupting what has become the ‘’Delhi transport normal”.

What is the Delhi “normal”? Simply put, it is an archaic 20th century notion of urban transportation being played out in the 21st century. Vehicle ownership has become associated with class, wealth and prestige in Delhi. The appearance of status is more important than functionality, efficiency and the environment. Ironically, Delhi’s car obsession is actually far removed from the reality of those cities it is trying to emulate. Can the new rule change this paradigm?

The odd/even formula’s attempt to reduce the number of cars on the road is well-intentioned but misguided in the long-run unless there is the political will to adopt a wider set of restrictions. As in Beijing, the rule may result in car owners simply buying more cars to circumvent it. Rather than trying to target the number of cars on the road, then, the government would be wise to target the time vehicles spend on the road. Stagnant traffic has a greater causal relationship with environmental degradation and economic inefficiency than freely moving larger numbers. Can this be achieved under this new regime? May be not.

The odd/even rule’s other objective of improving air quality in the city may not be realistic either. In a recent study, it was shown that only 9% of Delhi’s bad air quality and environmental deterioration was caused by private vehicles. Given that two wheelers and certain commercial vehicles – that form the majority of automobiles on the road – have been exempted, the rule cannot be expected to improve air quality dramatically. A slight decrease in pollution levels has been noted since January 1 (data points are too small to draw any conclusions), but for the government to meet its own environmental goals, it will gradually have to bring other vehicles into the ambit of the odd/even formula. Will it have the stomach to do that?

What is clear is that to meet these ambitious goals, the odd/even rule is not enough. If Delhi traffic is to be managed, both regulatory and behavioural changes are required.

A question of disincentives, and social justice

First, the ruling must be supplemented by other initiatives. Car ownership has to be disincentivised. Measures can include car owners paying punitive taxes on each additional car, the imposition of a congestion charge on usage of arterial routes and making ownership of a vehicle difficult.

Global examples of such strategies include additional registration taxes on a second car in the same family; London, where congestion charges are imposed on certain zones to limit heavy traffic; and Singapore, whose Vehicle Quota System (VQS)makes vehicle prices nearly 3-5 times the actual cost. In Singapore, it is in fact more expensive to buy the right to purchase a car, then to buy the car itself. The 41% ad valorem custom duty on all cars does not make it cheaper either. But each of these cities were in the first instance able to create public transport infrastructure. It could be argued that perhaps Delhi is the best suited amongst Indian cities to embark on moving the middle class to public transport.

But for this, besides enacting rules and regulations, a behavioural shift among NCR residents is urgently required. The aim of the city’s government must be to catalyse the preference of the growing middle class towards a “new normal”. This attitudinal change, evident in global cities like New York, London, Singapore, Tokyo and others is rooted on the usage of public transportation rather than private car ownership. It is absolutely respectable for a CEO to use the subway or an office worker to ride the bus; and carpooling is in fact encouraged, with lanes of roads dedicated to those who carpool.

Another behaviour change that must be favourably considered is to dispel the notion that people must work in offices. In an age so intertwined with technology, it is unimaginable that physical presence in offices is still a requirement. To reduce the number of cars, this notion must be challenged and provisions to facilitate telecommuting, especially for non-essential personnel, by offering broadband charges as part of an employee’s income, as against a fuel allowance or conveyance costs, must become an attractive option.

Finally, Delhi must realise the social injustice embedded within the phenomenon of car ownership. Each car occupies real estate in a city that lacks space. Car owners are effectively squatters, occupying high value land – which they don’t own and which they don’t pay for – to park their vehicles, to ride across the city, to conduct personal and official engagements. This same land is denied to countless others in their pursuit of a basic livelihood. Hawkers and vendors are often turned away from setting up stalls in the pursuit of ample parking space. The right to luxury and leisure has eclipsed the right to a livelihood and if Delhi is to be a global city, it must address this imbalance immediately.

The jury’s out on the Delhi government’s ambitious experiment. But there is no denying the urban landscape will become unmanageable if corrective measures, at a structural, regulatory and behavioural level are not initiated. The “Delhi normal” should reflect a modern, sustainable ideology of urban governance that is rooted in social justice, propelled by new technologies and embraced by new attitudes. Otherwise, this city will remain stuck in the 20th century, no matter what regulation any government adopts.

Samir Saran is Vice President, Observer Research Foundation and Prashant Kumar is Associate Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi