When Arvind Kejriwal, whose election campaign during the Delhi Assembly elections 2014 was marked by incessant coughing and choking due to respiratory problems, won with a massive mandate and became the Chief Minister of Delhi, very few people were surprised at his making it to the top job despite his not enjoying the pink of health. For he was not the only one coughing his way to work in Delhi, which has earned the dubious distinction of being the most polluted city in the world in terms of air quality. Delhi’s depressing air pollution level is highly harmful to the health of its inhabitants, particularly children and senior citizens who are much more vulnerable than the others. It increases the threshold of their susceptibility to respiratory diseases, cardiac problems and lung cancer.
The acuteness of the situation is highlighted by the fact that immediately after the polls, Kejriwal had to rush to Bengaluru to catch a breath of fresh air and undergo an expensive course of medical treatment – a luxury that every Delhiite cannot afford. Besides, it is not as if the rest of India is much better off than the national capital in the matter of air quality. It is simply a matter of one city doing relatively better than the other, with the seriousness of the problem differing not very substantially from one another. Suffice it to say that air pollution is the fifth largest killer in India. Taking cognizance of the “very serious problem” of rising pollution and regretting that Delhi is earning a bad name as the most polluted city in the world, the Supreme Court urged the Delhi government and the Centre to sit together and devise a multi-pronged policy to tackle the issue.
The alarming disclosure of Delhi beating about 1,600 cities in 91 countries to secure the unenviable position of numero uno among the most polluted cities in the world was made by World Health Organization (WHO) on the basis of a study it had conducted last year. The Ambient Air Pollution database, covering the period 2008-13, with the majority of the values for the years 2012 and 2013, revealed that Delhi was suffering from very severe air pollution. The city had, during the study period, particulate matters to the alarming level of PM2.5 concentration of 56 micrograms and PM10 concentration of 120 micrograms. What made the situation acutely deplorable for Delhi was that its particulate matter concentration levels were much worse than those of Beijing, which was once considered one of the most polluted cities in the world. While Beijing seems to have learnt its lessons and has taken steps to control the situation, Delhi appears to have ignored the gravity of the issue.
Causes for Concern
Referring to the worsening levels of air pollution, the WHO study said that many factors contributed to this alarming situation, including reliance on fossil fuels such as coal-fired power plants, too much dependence on private vehicles, inefficient use of energy in buildings, and the use of biomass for cooking and heating. Experts have voiced their considered opinion that there are several causes, ranging from burning of leftover crops after every agricultural harvest, carried out in the adjoining states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, to the burning of garbage in Delhi, the use of fuelwood and charcoal for cooking, vehicular emissions and the widespread presence of dust due to construction activities. All these have been responsible for the turning of air into toxic fumes.
A very familiar sight that greets a visitor to Delhi immediately on his arrival is the absence of the flashing of a customary smile of welcome by the inhabitants of the city. This not because of lack of hospitality or bonhomie but because people of a wide spectrum of society, ranging from the police personnel managing the traffic to two-wheeler riders, pedestrians and school children, are going about doing their daily chores, wearing surgical masks. A smile behind the mask would be no different from a wink in the dark! It would appear to a less-informed visitor that the city is sitting on a time bomb of some epidemic ticking away silently. Maybe the city actually is waiting for a catastrophe to happen. Years of accumulated neglect and indifference by the previous governments are weighing heavily on the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government, which was the least prepared to address the issue, let alone take it on by the horns.
Odd-Even Number Scheme
Pushed to a tight corner where pretending to ignore the reality of the problem was no more an option, the Delhi government put its best foot forward and made its first tentative move ever so hesitantly – but not before the Delhi High Court pulled up the authorities for not having a concrete plan to tackle the dangers of air pollution in the Capital! A Division Bench of the High Court had observed that living in Delhi was like living in a “gas chamber”. Earlier, the Delhi government had commissioned a study to look into pollution control in 2012. The study commenced in 2013, and the draft report was submitted to the government only recently. Apparently convinced that the vehicular traffic crisscrossing the city and the steady turnover of heavy vehicles entering the city, day after day, from other states, formed the single most polluting factor that turned the pristine Delhi air greyer and murkier, the AAP government has been aiming at curbing pollution of air level by the vehicular traffic on the Delhi roads. It went for the low-hanging fruit and came up with a measure, which is prima facie less meddlesome for the comfort of the public.
It has proposed the introduction of the odd-even number plan of private vehicles for pollution control from January 1 to 15, 2016 on an experimental basis. Kejriwal and his cabinet reached out to the Centre with details of the proposed plan and have been assured in turn by Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari of the Centre’s support in the implementation of the scheme. Thus, the decks are all clear for the launching of the proposal in full steam. The plan envisages restricting of operation of private cars with odd registration numbers to ply on a set of three alternate days of the week and those with even registration numbers on the other three alternate days, in both cases from 8 am to 8 pm. Outside the prescribed hours on these days and on Sundays, all private cars will be allowed to ply, with no restrictions. In theory, it appears that this formula should reduce the number of private vehicles on the road roughly by half on any given day. There should consequently be less air pollution and with the first battle in the war against air pollution nearly won, the lifting of the surgical mask to reveal a glimpse of the flashing smile should not be far behind! If that were indeed the shape of things to come, how come practically everyone from the Court to National Green Tribunal, experts and the common man, is frowning upon the proposal?
Regardless of the Delhi government’s avowed ambition of reducing the number of private vehicles on the road, one cannot help noting that the plan leaks like a sieve. For starters, out of the proposed trial period of 15 days, two intervening Sundays are exempted, reducing the effective time period to 13 days. Besides, the government has been considering granting of an exemption to certain categories of people like women, handicapped, elderly, etc. apparently with an idea of providing relief to those sections of the society who are vulnerable and have a high level of threat perception. What is not at par though is the exemption of two-wheelers, which is being seriously considered by the government, probably to keep AAP’s vote bank unaffected.
Apparently, the government is not in favour of the users of two-wheelers who are mostly from the low-income group of the society being hit by the formula by their being compelled to use public transport. This suspicion gains currency with the findings of a study by Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur that has pointed out that motorcycles and scooters are a major pollutant. The draft report of the study states that two-wheelers are responsible for more PM10 and PM2.5 than cars and contribute to 33% of pollution, with cars being responsible for a mere 10%. It is, therefore, evident that exempting two-wheelers from the odd-even formula of vehicular traffic would defeat the purpose of curbing air pollution. What remains to be seen, therefore, is whether the AAP government would rise to the occasion and do the right thing called for by the seriousness of the situation or succumb to the compulsions of vote-bank politics.
Fewer Cars, More Buses
Meanwhile, the Delhi government is planning to get 6,000 new buses inducted to ease the hardship likely to arise from the implementation of its odd-even formula. However, the government has not been able to assure the National Green Tribunal (NGT) that the CNG buses would cause absolutely no pollution. The government is clueless about how the new buses would help in its fight against congestion. Congestion in the city has not reduced with the introduction of Delhi Metro, which was expected to do wonders on this count. In fact, congestion on the city streets has only increased since the advent of Delhi Metro. Besides, how is the government going to come up with a solution for the question of parking space for the additional buses?
Since a bus takes the place of about ten cars, which are the 60,000 cars that the government proposes to replace with the new buses? NGT has pulled up the government, which has no answer to the questions, for deciding to introduce more buses without conducting any studies or research. The Tribunal has pointed out that with so much congestion and pollution around, the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) has been plying empty buses with no valid reason and has failed to submit a report sought by the tribunal. Should one surmise that the plying of empty buses on routes with not many commuters is a simple case of mismanagement on the part of DTC or an exercise of a populist measure on the part of the Delhi government, with scant regard to the economic viability? In either case, it reflects a deplorable state of affairs involving waste of money and resources.
Proliferation of Vehicles
The proliferation of vehicles in Delhi is quite immense. According to the information provided by the Delhi government to NGT, around 1,300-1,400 new vehicles – both heavy and light, including two-wheelers – are registered every day. Stating that a good number of vehicles are being registered elsewhere in the National Capital Region (NCR) like Gurgaon, Bahadurgarh, Ghaziabad and Noida in addition to those being registered in Delhi, the tribunal has called upon the Delhi government to take a stand for possibly capping the number of vehicles sold and registered. The tribunal has directed, as an interim measure, that diesel vehicles more than 10 years old as already directed, as well as new diesel vehicles, will not be registered in National Capital Territory (NCT) till January 6, 2016.
The tribunal has directed the Central and Delhi governments to take a conscientious decision with regard to not buying any diesel vehicles. It has also directed all public authorities, including municipal corporations, Delhi Development Authority, police and other public departments, to draw up an action plan for phasing out diesel vehicles, particularly trucks. Recently, the Supreme Court had observed in a related case that “it is not fair for the rich to buy luxury cars and pollute Delhi” and decreed that diesel vehicles with engine capacity of over 2000cc shall be banned for an initial period of three months. The court also said that some order would have to be passed to ensure that diesel vehicles that are over ten years old do not continue to pollute the environment. The Court has also stressed on the need to ensure that vehicles in Delhi use at least Euro IV-ready fuel.
In compliance with a Supreme Court directive, the Delhi government had already imposed an environment compensation charge on trucks and commercial vehicles entering the city. The rates of cess on commercial vehicles have since been doubled by the Court. Ironically, the government has little control over the trucks coming into the city. Nor is Delhi Police under the Delhi government’s watch.
The odd and even formula of the staggering of the vehicular traffic has all the portents of a mere cosmetic gesture. Taken in isolation, it smacks of a lack of seriousness and conviction of purpose. No serious study or research seems to have gone into the viability or ramifications of the proposal. The Chief Minister has repeatedly stated that the formula was being implemented on an experimental basis and that its further continuance would depend only on its acceptance by the people. No matter how lofty it sounds, how do you expect the implementing authorities to take up the scheme seriously when there is no solid and irrevocable support from the highest levels? Unless it is backed by serious substantive measures like controlling the burning of waste – agricultural and otherwise – and emission of dust from construction activities, the proposal would be a non-starter.
How serious is the Delhi government in taking up the pressing matter with neighbouring states and the Union Ministry for Urban Development for their cooperation on a realistic timeframe is a moot question that begs an answer from Team Kejriwal, which seems to be perennially embroiled in endless controversies and scams with no let up for addressing serious issues like pollution. Kejriwal’s running feud with the Delhi Police, the Lieutenant Governor and the Central government is not going to make things any easier for the resolution of the problem of pollution. The need of the hour is for the Delhi government to take up the issue of pollution control with all concerned authorities and agencies as well as experts, on a war footing, with the intention of unveiling a comprehensive master plan that would be in keeping with the parameters set by the NGT and the Courts. Meanwhile, Delhiites would have to make do with odd cosmetic measures like odd and even staggering of vehicular traffic, with a pinch of salt and a cough or two thrown in for good measure.
Comprehensive Master Plan
To ensure a result-oriented and long-lasting solution to the threat of rising pollution, over and above the odd-even traffic plan, the Delhi government should draw up a Comprehensive Master Plan incorporating a series of complementary measures to de-pollute as well as decongest the city on a sustainable basis. And all the proposed anti-pollution measures should be implemented in right earnest. For instance, to discourage the use of private vehicles and encourage use of public transport, the very first requirement is to ensure a strong and viable public transport system. Another primary requirement is a top-class pedestrian infrastructure comprising good sidewalks, safe skywalks, foot overbridges as well as user-friendly access points to public transport facilities. This is because every public transport user would have to do plenty of walking to complete his to-and-fro trips. Furthermore, the Delhi government should also consider introducing congestion charges in busy areas in addition to the odd-even transport sorting.
The AAP government should also crack the whip and put an end to unregulated construction in and around Delhi and stop regularizing illegal structures. This is imperative because currently floor after floor gets added to buildings and the construction materials are dumped near the roads or on pavements and the dust flying from these sites aggravate the pollution levels. Furthermore, the contemplated measures should also aim to curb the pollution emanating from countless generating sets operating in people’s homes, shops and offices that throw black fumes. This menace can be easily eliminated by accepting the offer made by Union Minister Nitin Gadkari on December 24 wherein the Centre is ready to provide 10 lakh litres of biodiesel a day to the Delhi government. Since the odd-even number scheme by itself will not have much impact, the above suggestions and a slew of complimentary measures need to be considered and incorporated into the proposed Comprehensive Master Plan aimed at combating the menace of pollution in the national capital.