Mexico’s ambassador to India, Melba Pría, famous for her unusual choice of an official vehicle – an auto rickshaw, talks about what Delhi can learn from Mexico in terms of pollution control.
In 1992, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Mexico City as the world’s most polluted city. After that, the Mexican government enforced stringent pollution control measures. Two decades on, it is still struggling to invent and reinvent policies to decrease vehicular and industrial pollution. In 2014, WHO described Delhi as the most polluted city in the world. In an email conversation, Mexico’s ambassador to India, Melba Pría, famous for her unusual choice of an official vehicle – an auto rickshaw, talks about what Delhi can learn from Mexico.
The process of tackling air pollution in Mexico began with the temporary ‘Hoy No Circula’. Can you explain this programme?
Hoy No Circula (‘day without car’) is a vehicle mobility restriction programme that was established in 1989 as a temporary measure, which eventually became permanent. It consisted of restricting circulation of around 20 percent vehicles from Monday to Friday, depending on the last digit of their licence plates. Vehicles were given a colour sticker which determined the day of the week in which they could not be used. Along with the Hoy No Circula, a programme of vehicle verification was also implemented. Since 1990, all vehicles must pass a verification test every six months. They are granted a score which determines their restriction to mobility. The implementation of policies like Hoy No Circula represents a perpetual effort for the sake of having better air quality. Even with 26 years of experience behind it, the programme keeps reinventing itself.
How do you see Delhi’s odd-even rule?
Delhi’s odd-even scheme is a good initial step for combating pollution and improving air quality. It took Mexico City decades to implement these policies, and even in the past few weeks the government has had to revise and adjust its vehicle mobility restriction programme in order to cope with new challenges. These revisions will probably lead to more stringent and comprehensive policies. Nevertheless, Mexico City’s decades-long efforts clearly show that comprehensive approaches and openness to the best ideas can make a huge difference.
I think Indians must be aware that air pollution is a complex issue that requires long term solutions and that improvement will require a huge amount of commitment from its citizens. However, the effort will be worth it because what we do now will determine our quality of life 20 years from now.
What do you think of the implementation of the odd-even rule in Delhi so far?
As I mentioned, it has taken Mexico City over 26 years to develop some effective air quality improvement schemes, and the work is always far from over. Therefore, I think that a period of 15 days is probably not enough to jump to conclusions. I am glad that the public debate on air pollution in India is having this momentum. During these 15 days, we were able to see some real examples of citizen commitment to the cause and that was reassuring.
What are the differences and/or similarities you see in implementation of odd-even rule in Mexico and Delhi?
Mexico City began its fight against air pollution with the Hoy No Circula policy, yet, that was only one small part within a broad range of efforts. Most factories were relocated and forced to change their air filters. Even before Hoy No Circula, the government focused on the quality of gasoline, and undertook efforts to clear fuel of lead, aluminium and other pollutants. It became mandatory for cars to change their worn out catalytic converters. Car verification was an essential pillar of the combat against air pollution, and there was particular emphasis on keeping verification centres free of corruption.
Most importantly, the government undertook long term measures to improve alternative transportation, such as expanding the metro system, bike sharing programmes and the construction of a Metrobus, inspired from best practices from around the world. In this sense, I think people of Delhi should start paying attention to the policies that will complement the odd-even scheme and drive the effort to improve air quality forward.
What steps are currently being taken in Mexico to curb pollution?
After being declared the world’s most polluted city by WHO in 1992, by 2012, we were proud to have 248 days of air quality considered as “good”. However, we still face challenges due to a population of around 20 million in the Mexico City metropolitan area and a geographical location that, like the one in Delhi, is a determinant for the impact of air pollution.
Recently, the government made Hoy No Circula programme more restrictive on a temporary basis. Due to the lack of rains and wind, the period from April to June is known as one of ozone (O3) concentration. This is why for the duration of it, all cars (except hybrids and electric cars) will not be allowed to circulate on one day from Monday to Friday (depending on their license plate number) and one Saturday of each month.
Any suggestions to the Delhi government for better implementation of the rule?
There will always be some type of resistance to measures that make people change their habits. The government will have to make the improvement of air quality a priority and make a commitment to the implemented policies, ensuring that they are kept above [politics].
Getting people of Delhi on board is crucial. It is important to raise awareness of the dangers of pollutants. WHO has stated that more than 7 million premature deaths are linked to air pollution. Therefore, an essential part of the programme would be to inform and educate the people on the importance of this type of programmes, through all available channels and creative use of technology, websites, apps or social media. As an example, Mexico City has a website which periodically informs about the air quality of the day, recommendations and news in a user-friendly format.
Any challenges which Delhi might face in continuing this rule for a longer period of time?
As it happened in Mexico City, people will eventually get used to the scheme and incorporate it into their daily lives. For this to happen, the authorities will have to be strict regarding the issuing of fines and the enforcement of the rules.
There may be a period of adjustment in which the city will determine the measures which are most effective. However, for Mexico City, keeping up the vehicle restriction programme for a long period of time had many advantages. The Mario Molina Centre found that it managed to control 25 to 70 percent of emissions (depending on the pollutant agent) and encouraged renovation of the vehicle fleet. A survey undertaken by this centre also found that Hoy No Circula encouraged the use of alternative transportation, as 63 percent of people reported using public transportation on the day that their vehicles were restricted.
But even scientific studies show that vehicle restriction programmes are insufficient to face the broad air pollution problem, so that will be the biggest challenge for Delhi to address in the long term.
How did you come up with the idea of making an auto-rickshaw as the official vehicle?
I came up with the idea of using an auto-rickshaw because I consider it to be one of the most efficient means of transport. It is what most Indian people use for transportation, so I figured I could do it as well. I also chose it because it is one of India’s cultural icons. So far, the vehicle has resonated very well with the general public and the media. Every time we use it someone notices, and they think that it is a fun and clever way to promote Mexico.n
(The interview appears in May 1-15,2016 edition of Governance Now)