Battling pollution: Turning Delhi into breathable city demands holistic and sustainable approach
The decision of the Delhi government to introduce temporarily the odd-even scheme for vehicles has received both bouquets and brickbats. No one will question the government when it comes to the need to reduce the national capital’s unbearable levels of air pollution but should introducing curbs on the way people travel be the way to do it? It is high time the administration explored other options such as reducing industrial pollution, construction activity, burning of wood etc and not cause inconvenience.
It was only when Delhi’s pollution levels became a public health emergency that the Delhi government announced that a 15 day experiment with the odd-even formula was to start from 2016 New Year’s Day. Every day after it was announced, those against the motion far out-voiced those in favour. It was seen as a flippant brain child of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government just looking for diversion from its reported failure to govern.
Though environment experts kept pleading “to give anything that might work a try,” their voices were drowned in the daily cacophony against the move. Everyone waited to see chaos on Delhi’s roads and an irate public baying for the government’s blood. But unexpectedly on New Year’s Day, there were far fewer vehicles on the road, parking was miraculously available at even the most sought-after shopping centres and the public seemed to be co-operating beyond belief. Cynics attributed this to slowness on the first day of the New Year and were quick to advice, “Wait for the weekend to be over and see what happens on Monday.” But surprisingly, the week passed uneventfully, with the number of supporters overtaking detractors.
Congestion on the roads had halved and sale of petrol and diesel reduced by 40 per cent. So how did Delhi achieve the impossible? Several things went in its favour. The Centre for Science and Environment and amicus curie Harish Salve had already pulled out hard data to show the apex court how people were living in a virtual gas chamber. It all boiled down to profligate and dangerous policies favouring diesel run cars and allowing trucks running on outdated technology entering Delhi to skirt toll booths.
Though besieged by a battery of lawyers representing vehicle manufacturers, the high court and Supreme Court granted no stay and their judges even volunteered to carpool in personal solidarity with the move. The Ministry of Home Affairs, under whom the Delhi police operates, and the Ministry of Environment which lays down emission norms and monitors air quality did not queer the pitch. The clear message to the police was to manage things, which indeed they did, with exemplary professionalism.
By far the most important reason for success was the realisation by the citizenry that irreversible dangers loomed ahead particularly for those with fragile lungs. With every third child showing signs of respiratory distress and the daily Air Quality Index (AQI) displaying severe pollution levels, it needed no further evidence to convince people. They were ready and willing to try anything that might help.
In addition to deploying the full fleet of over 4,500 Delhi Transport buses, another 1,250 private buses were brought in as reinforcements. Closure of schools met with no public criticism and enabled school buses to supplement the bus pool. More space meant no harrowing tales of overcrowding and misbehaviour, a welcome first for Delhi.
The Metro, which generally carries around 20 lakh commuters, saw a 12 per cent jump in footfall and coped magnificently by adding to frequency and coaches. Quite unexpectedly, the use of mobile apps for carpooling saw a 70 per cent surge. Even government employees ferried to office in individual staff cars joined the effort. Even women who had been exempted volunteered.
The AAP government enthused thousands of volunteers to get involved. On New Year’s Eve, 10,000 AAP volunteers were summoned to a sports stadium to hear Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal in the presence of the traffic and transport authorities. Over 5,000 civil defence volunteers and NCC cadets were also placed at the disposal of the police.
As news of success began to permeate the city, there was a burst of citizen-pride and even greater joy when drivers fudging number plates and feigning illness were caught and fined, an unprecedented Rs 2,000.
Can the strategy work in other cities in India? Other cities are not living on the edge of a pollution precipice in the same way as Delhi is and public enthusiasm may be tepid. Finding thousands of volunteers may not be easy, this was available in plenty in Delhi. Public reaction, too, is unpredictable. In 2003, too, Delhi had made international news when the entire public transport was switched to CNG. That effort, too, was spurred by high pollution levels. Yet in less than five years, the rapid transport bus system called BRT which has met with relative success in cities like Ahmedabad and Pune became a stillborn child in Delhi. Car owners and the AAP government ensured its pre-term abortion without considering the positive impact on pollution.
The Metro which started in 2003 has provided a clean alternative but neither the Metro nor the Ring Railway, which runs parallel to Delhi’s ring-road and touches some 20 vantage points connecting NCR townships, have developed an integrated system to carry commuters seamlessly across public transport options. Neither offers last mile options. The ordeal of haggling with ill-mannered auto drivers is enough to deter most commuters from even trying the rail option.
The government’s policy towards pollution has also been short-sighted and lethargic. The eastern and western peripheral highways which were expected to prevent unnecessary heavy vehicular traffic crowding Delhi received scant attention from the Central government and the partner states of Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh for over 12 years. Delhi bore the brunt until the Central government finally stepped in last Diwali. But years of avoidable pollution has been the price.
Over the last 10 years, successive governments both at the Centre and in Delhi gave free rein to registration of more cars while refusing to confront the logic of allowing diesel run high cc vehicles to swell pollution in Delhi. Well-knowing that the Bharat III and IV emission levels were two generations behind world standards and the quality of fuel was nowhere near what it should be to support the low speeds of city commutes, the authorities refused to even consider options like a congestion tax or making registration of more cars prohibitive.
The car population increased by 50 per cent over the last 8 years and reduced the average vehicular speed to just 7 kmph. Once more and more fancy cars became available, flaunting an expensive vehicle (albeit run on diesel) established one’s exclusiveness and social status, at the cost of Delhi’s air.
One hesitates to give unequivocal endorsement to the odd-even strategy because seen in context it is like the relief an asthmatic gets from a quick puff from an inhaler. Certainly it has started a dialogue about the paramount need for investment in public transport and brought the subject of cleaner fuel and emission norms into prominence, but the future depends on the weight of a much awaited judicial fiat and the seriousness of the governments to take charge.
(The writer was Chief Secretary, Delhi Government and Secretary, Health Ministry, Government of India)