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Car Rationing Experiment Backfires In Polluted New Delhi


In the U.S., almost 90 percent of households have a car. In India, that figure is only 6 percent, but it is growing steadily. India has big plans to raise the standard of living for its people. And, Ari, you were just looking at whether the country can grow in a way that's cleaner than what happened in the U.S. to put less carbon in the atmosphere.


Yeah, and while I was in New Delhi, I went to a used car dealership and met a young women named Minakshe Sharma. She's 20 years old, works at a finance company, and on the day we met, she was buying her first car.

MINAKSHE SHARMA: It represents independence to me.

SHAPIRO: I think in the United States owning a car is sort of part of the American dream. Is it also part of the Indian dream?

M. SHARMA: Obviously, yes. For a girl, it is really a dream. When I even go to the shopping, I'm having bags like this, and I cannot just say, auto (laughter).

SURIYA SHARMA: And this is very much famous and this is very much secure car named Toyota Corolla.

SHAPIRO: The car salesman is named Deepak Sharma. He goes by Suriya which means sun, and he has conflicted feelings about his job.

S. SHARMA: Cars are increasing global warming, so I don't think it's good.

SHAPIRO: I think many people would be surprised to hear somebody who sells cars for a living saying cars are part of the problem.

S. SHARMA: If I'm a car seller, that means I'm also a human being, so I have to tell them, please use car, but as much as you can use less.

SHAPIRO: He was thinking about this a lot when we were in town. New Delhi had been experimenting with a plan to get cars off the road. For two weeks on alternate days, you could only drive your car depending on whether the license plate ended in a odd or an even number. Used cars keep their old plates, so people came to Suriya's lot asking for a work around, another car.

S. SHARMA: If anybody has an even-numbered car, they want to buy odd-numbered car also.

SHAPIRO: So you're saying the odd-even scheme which is supposed to get cars off the street is actually bringing people to you to buy more cars?

S. SHARMA: Yes, yes. It's not successful. It's not successful because people are buying other cars.

SHAPIRO: The government did have a hard time showing that this actually reduced pollution. Of course, cars are just one small part of India's carbon footprint. It's one of many things the country will have to get right in order to develop in a sustainable way.

We're on the other side of New Delhi now, and the Wadhwa family is getting ready to start the work week.

MOHID WADHWA: Take your medicine first.

SHAPIRO: The sun has not been up for two hours yet and the mother Muskan is already exasperated.

This is not a typical Monday.

MUSKAN WADHWA: Of course. It's really difficult.

SHAPIRO: The Wadhwa family is very well off by Indian standards. They already own two cars, but both have even-numbered plates, and this is a Monday when only odd-numbered cars can be on the road. Mohid, the father is about to put his 3-year-old into a taxi before he puts the 7-year-old onto his motor scooter, which is exempt from the rationing. He says if this goes on, he will buy car number three.

Do you think the odd-even scheme is a good idea?

WADHWA: It's good if it's controlling the pollution. If it's not controlling the pollution, then it's a very bad idea.

SHAPIRO: But if you buy another car to deal with the odd-even rationing, that's not going to help pollution, right?

WADHWA: Yeah, but it's going to manage our family needs. So we have to manage with that also.

SHAPIRO: His 7-year-old grabs her Disney backpack - she is obsessed with "Frozen" - and she hops on the scooter with Dad.

WADHWA: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: Did you do your homework, he asks. Nope. The father replies, tell your teacher it was your auntie's wedding. They motor off into Delhi's tangled, chaotic traffic to start their day.


WADHWA: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: To get some perspective on how this conversation about pollution fits in with larger issues of climate change and development, I met up with an old friend and colleague, NPR's own correspondent who has reported on India for years.

Julie McCarthy, how nice to see you here in New Delhi.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: And welcome Ari, great to have you here in our fair city.

SHAPIRO: What is this beautiful garden we're walking into?

MCCARTHY: This is Lodi Gardens. This is basically the lungs of the city.

SHAPIRO: We sat on a park bench next to an herb garden with a towering ancient tomb in the distance and talked about the challenge this country faces.

If everybody's always trying to find workarounds, what does that mean for a government attempt to impose some order onto the chaos?

MCCARTHY: It's the biggest problem that any local chieftain will have here. Absolutely, because you're dealing with ingenious people who really kind of like to rail against a whole lot of order imposed on them. I mean, just drive on the roads. Have you - did you see people really following lines?

SHAPIRO: Oh, the traffic lanes are mere suggestions.

MCCARTHY: Yeah, and so (laughter) this is kind of railing against it. And all - look, you're dealing with 1.2 billion people, which means, you know, if you're not getting the edge on someone, they're going to get the edge on you.

SHAPIRO: As you well know, there are some 400 million people without reliable electricity here in India. So how do you tell those people you can't have a refrigerator, a car, the things that Americans take for granted?

MCCARTHY: This is the clash between aspirational India and the reality that the world has to face, that there are limits. If you want to turn 400 million people into solar energy users, that's one thing. And there's a big push in this country to make the whole energy grid much more reliant on the sun than it is now.

But right now, this is a country that runs on coal. And there are plenty of Indians who will turn to the West and say you got the world into this. Well, you have no standing to say to us we cannot now develop. You need to help us develop. And if that means we have to pollute, well, then you have to figure out a way to draw down your own lifestyles.

SHAPIRO: Well, NPR's Julie McCarthy, it is a pleasure visiting you here in your city, New Delhi.

MCCARTHY: Thank you Ari. It's a treat to have you here.

SHAPIRO: Tomorrow, what happens when an Indian auto company buys a British luxury car brand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.