— Shashwat DC
As the city of Delhi battles with air pollution in a rather unusual traffic-regulation manner, am reminded of an anecdote of the first ever such traffic restriction in human history. Two millennia ago, when all “roads led to Rome”, Emperor Julius Caesar was terribly miffed at all the chariots that crowded the narrow lanes of his favourite city. Angry and resolute, Caesar banned wheeled traffic from Rome during the daytime, so no chariots were allowed within the city limits. The results must have been satisfactory, later in the 1st Century CE, another Roman emperor Hadrian only strengthened the measures by limiting even the total number of carts that could enter Rome.
But then that was Rome. Let’s shift our focus to the capital of India, Delhi in its modern avatar. The city wears the sinister crown of being the most polluted (air) city in the world according to the WHO. With the winter chill setting in, the problem of pollution has only increased. Just like Caesar did in Rome, the current CM of Delhi Arvind Kejriwal has introduced a traffic-restriction scheme in an attempt to contain the pollution levels. The objectives are quite different this time, even though the road taken is not much.
Prodded by the courts (that has time and often played a stellar role in combating pollution by making CNG mandatory or by banning ageing cars), the Delhi government announced an “odd-even” car rationing experiment that will run for an initial two-week trial period till January 15th. Under this, private cars with even and odd number license plates will be allowed only on alternate days every week.
In the few days that the policy has been implemented, there are conflicting reports whether it is a success or an abject failure. On one side you that the government of Delhi terming it as an unprecedented success. On the other end, lot many experts are questioning the validity and gains of such a measure.
Personally, I have seen numerous Facebook posts by my friends in Delhi, who have affirmed that the traffic on the street has visibly lessened. There is much less cars on the roads, and the driving has eased.
Yet, when you look at all the readings from various sensors, public and private (on can even check the current levels and those of last 24 hours online on DPCC website) , there is a pervading gloomy picture that’s painted. The particulate concentration (PM 2.5) or the AQI value, which should ideally stay beneath 60 ppm, was hovering at 435 at the moment this piece was penned. Meaning the air in Delhi is currently hazardous for its citizens to even breathe. That’s how things stand
So why is that while the odd-even formula is working and the traffic is reduced then why is the air pollution is not decreasing? Isn’t that odd? Or is it even?
To find the answers, we will have to delve deeper than before. Here are a few possible explanations to why the things are the way they are in Delhi:
Can we please talk numbers?
Data is the building block of any decision making. To be able to do analysis or take action, one needs data. But frankly, I have failed miserably to find one credible report that links Delhi’s air pollution to vehicular traffic. Indeed, Delhi’s traffic is a major contributor, considering that there are some 8.5 million vehicles in the city, with 1,400 new cars being added every day. Surely, all that smoke emanating from the exhaust pipes must be the reason?
Could be. But we are not sure. There is no detailed study that is available on the subject. Not much research is available to guide us. Thus, is vehicular emission the primary reason, no one can say so with surety? Then on what basis could a government put in such a measure, without having empirical data to back it up. The last big research had been done by CSE in 1996, which had published a report on urban air pollution. There is another one by IIT, but beyond that, there is no big one.
It is like giving a disprins to man who is regularly racked by headaches. Now, without an examination, how the hell can we be sure that it is not migraine, or god forbid, brain tumour. What Delhi needs now is a comprehensive study on what is causing pollution, right from the air in the city to the river Yamuna that flows from the city. Armed with the data, analysis could be done, and action taken. You can’t do it any other way.
Strengthening public transport
When it comes to air pollution, there can be no better instance than that of Beijing. The smog ridden ‘Forbidden city’ is now a role-model for Delhi. It was in 2008, that Beijing had introduced restrictions on the amount of cars on its roads in an attempt to reduce congestion and pollution during the Olympic Games. The formula back then was very much like the one being tested in Delhi now, namely, odd-even traffic restriction on alternative days. But then, vehicular management has been just one part of the measures undertaken by the Chinese. Over the past few years, there has been immense investment in public infrastructure. Today, Beijing Subway has 18 lines, 527 km (327 mi) of tracks and 319 stations in operation. The Beijing Suburban Railway is a commuter railway service that connects outlying counties with the subway network and they are also putting in place the Maglev. Meanwhile, Beijing also has more than 30,000 buses carrying over 15 million person/trips a day. So, while the restrictions were being imposed, investments were also being simultaneously being made in alternatives. This has led to a shift in the lifestyles of people, who have adopted greener alternatives by trick or treat.
In comparison, Delhi has one of the strongest public infrastructures in India. But even that pales in comparison with that of Beijing. For instance, Delhi Metro that has 213 kilometres (132 mi) of tracks serving 160 stations. And that’s about it. The DTC buses are not sufficient, meanwhile the suburban transport is still running in the Partition-era mode. The public transportation needs to be a viable alternative to car travel, but sadly it is not. Thus, cars are a necessity in Delhi and not a luxury.
As of now, there are no schemes that have been announced for strengthening the public infrastructure or making it robust. In that way, the government of Delhi seems to have grabbed the lowest hanging fruit and seems to be pretty content with it.
Not long term
While we all know that Delhi is the most polluted city (which BTW is a state) in the world and India, do you know which is the greenest state in India? It’s Sikkim! And the mountainous paradise has not become the greenest, by adopting short-term measures. Over the past two decade, Sikkim has been striving to a greater goal. The first such scheme (“Harit Kranti”) was launched by CM Pawan Chamling (who also happens to be the longest serving CM in India) back in 1995. Over the past 2 decades, the state of Sikkim has transformed itself completely. So much so, that PM Narendra Modi is all set to declare Sikkim as a cent-percent organic state.
Meanwhile, the way Delhi seems to be grappling with pollution is just by using short-term actions, there is no vision-or mission. To be fair, there are numerous factors that make Delhi the most polluted city, right from the thermal power plants in Badarpur area, to the farmers in Punjab and Haryana burning their fields in preparation of the new crop, or the climatic conditions thanks to the towering Himalayas in the north. Hence, solution to Delhi’s woes cannot and will not be a single dose, a panacea pill that its denizens can swallow. One would require multiple actions to address all these issues, to really make a difference.
Also numerous studies on such road restrictions have proved that, in the long-run such measures are usually counterproductive, as people tend to buy more cars or find ways to break the norms. Such restrictions can work for a while, but not for long.
Exceptions do not make the rule
If one were to truly evaluate the odd-even scheme, the exceptions would be baffling. As of now, there are a total of 27 exemptions including all motorcycles (more than 5 million motorcyclists), all female drivers travelling alone (for security reasons) and several categories of official vehicles, including those of high ranking officials. According to some estimates, passenger cars account for only 10% of the air pollution, and with all these exceptions, the gains are more or less nullified.
In comparison, the Delhi courts are playing a very active role in war on pollution. Recently, the High Court ordered to stop registrations of diesel cars and sport utility vehicles with an engine capacity of 2,000 cc and over until 31 March 2016. The court also ordered all taxis in the Delhi region to switch to compressed natural gas by 1 March 2016. Transportation vehicles than are more than 10 years old were banned from entering the capital. Now these sorts of measures will have more impact in the long run. After all, the last time pollution in Delhi was reduced was when the Supreme Court had literally forced all buses and autos to go clean with CNG in 2002.
And then it is politics
Politicians are prone to playing politics. That is understandable and expected. But somehow, the Delhi government seems keener to take credit and feed the media. I mean, it has not been a few days and yet the government has declared the odd-even thing as an unequivocal success. In fact, the AAP government has now released a lengthy TVC, where you have a man in muffler with his back, making some very nice noises on the odd-even ban. Over the past few days, the Delhi government has gone ballistic taking credit for the measures, which in reality has come as a suggestion from the High Court. Also, if at all, the public infrastructure in Delhi has been able to withstand and deliver on the same, the credit for it lays with Sheila Dixit, who had transformed Delhi in her tenure as its CM.
Little wonder, the debate on whether it is a success or a failure is now dependant on what is the political line that you follow. If you are an AAP supporter, then it is a success, if BJP, then failure, if Congress, well, we are not responsible for it. Data is no more central to the debate, only party ideology is.
That is the sad reality of Delhi (possibly, anything India). Till we address the larger issues, the air in Delhi will continue to be polluted. Little wonder, 13 out of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are Indian. And if things go as is, don’t be surprised if there are additions to the list.
So Delhi folks, be prepared for the fog-smog mix, and please don’t expect miracles by just dumping your vehicles on one day and driving on another. Nature punishes the sins much slowly, but when it does, it does so firmly. This one battle won’t be an easy or a short one..
P.S. Thankfully, my city of Mumbai is not on the polluted list, largely saved by the Arabian Sea. In fact, many more cities in India have been saved by the two seas that surround us from the three sides. Thank goodness, for a peninsular India.