What do autorickshaws and blood diamonds have in common?

One of my favorite things about urban India is the wide range of transportation options. You can travel by foot, (in Jaipur: camel or elephant), bike, old-school rickshaw, scooter, motorcycle, autorickshaw, car, bus, or metro. 

As you might have guessed, though, there's a cost to all of these amazing methods for getting around: local air pollution is through the roof. Delhi was recently named the most polluted city in the world, with PM 2.5 concentrations one-and-a-half times higher than Beijing last week (Beijing, mind you, issued its first-ever air pollution "red alert" on Monday, bringing the city to a standstill). Bangalore, where we currently are, feels noticeably better than Delhi, but has its own pollution problem as well.

We've been doing the majority of our getting around using autorickshaws, amazing motorized three-wheeled contraptions which can weave between buses, fit two comfortably on the back seat, and are (to a Westerner, at least) dirt cheap. Plus they're fun and exciting, but don't come with the terror of being on the back of a motorcycle. 

Bangalore's autorickshaw fleet is composed of two types of vehicles: those with two-stroke (petrol) motors, and those with four-stroke motors (LPG). They're conveniently color-coded: the dirty ones are painted black, whereas the clean(er) ones are a beautiful green color. Oh, the symbolism! The good they provide, however, is identical. Fares are the same across rickshaws, and the ride quality/speed/etc is basically indistinguishable as well. The dirty ones are supposedly being phased out over time - newly purchased rickshaws have to be the clean variety - but there are still plenty in the fleet. Because we're good little environmentalists, Louis and I have been trying to take the LPG ones whenever possible.

 Ready to be hired!

Ready to be hired!

...Except that all that we're getting by avoiding black ricks is green glow. The rickshaw situation reminds Louis (who is "finishing [his] PhD and doesn't have time to [guest post on my] blog") and I (therefore taking the credit) of blood diamonds, thanks to Catherine, Jim Bushnell, and Carla Peterman

Humor me for a second here. Suppose we have a world with 5 potential rickshaw riders (diamond buyers), and 5 potential rickshaw rides (diamonds). Initially, transportation services (diamonds) are seen as homogenous, but in reality, there are 2 rides available in dirty rickshaws (blood diamonds). Louis and I decide to boycott these dirty rides (blood diamonds), and commit to only riding in the 3 remaining clean rickshaws (buying conflict-free diamonds). The other three consumers in the market are indifferent - so long as they get from point A to point B (have a diamond), they're happy. The end result? We ride only in green rickshaws (buy clean diamonds) and get our green glow, but pollution (diamond-driven conflict) hasn't actually changed, because we just swap rickshaws (diamonds) with the remaining 3 buyers in the market.

If we wanted to actually effect change, the share of clean-only riders in the market would have to be larger than the fraction of green rickshaws. To see this, suppose there are still 3 clean rickshaws, but now we've got 4 green-only riders. In this scenario, the total number of rides consumed drops from 5 to 4 (one green-only rider will be unable to find a clean rickshaw and will refuse to ride), and the ride that isn't taken is a dirty ride. Cool. But unlikely to be the situation in urban India, where people seem to be pretty indifferent about their rickshaw colors.

  Jim Bushnell 's neat figure illustrating the successful-boycott case. Borrowed from a set of slides on reshuffling.

Jim Bushnell's neat figure illustrating the successful-boycott case. Borrowed from a set of slides on reshuffling.

Looks like we're probably stuck with just green (rickshaw) glow for now. But on the off chance we might end up on the margin (and because, let's admit it, green glow feels good!), we'll keep riding the LPG rickshaws if we've got the choice.