Damned Delhi

Update: 2015-12-14 07:31 GMT
In this Nov. 3, 2012 file photo, a tourist stands in the middle of a street in front of Rashtrapati Bhawan enveloped in a blanket of smog, caused by a mixture of pollution and fog in New Delhi (Photo: AP)

You are damned if you don’t and damned if you do. Arvind Kejriwal will now be acutely aware of this old adage as he squares up to the barrage of criticism coming his way due to his proposed curbs on traffic. But realistically speaking, what was he to do? The problem is hardly of Aam Aadmi Party’s making. The state of Delhi’s environmental degradation has been a subject of discussion for a very long time.

That’s all it has been: a subject of discussion, not of action. So it is an inherited problem. We can criticise Mr Kejriwal and the AAP for not doing anything about it till the situation became absolutely dire, but we should lay the blame on previous Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party governments who have ruled Delhi without confronting the situation head on. Mr Kejriwal and company have at least made a start; the question is, how effective will it be?

There are many culprits involved in the declining state of our environment and these are common to most Indian cities. Delhi is worse off simply because it has so many people  — its population keeps growing inordinately fast — and also because many of its citizens get more and more prosperous with each passing year. As a result, the number of cars increases dramatically every year, with the more affluent owning multiple vehicles. Affluence also makes air conditioners at home a standard thing, unlike the luxury it was some years ago. The absence of a good public transport system has also resulted in an increasing number of people travelling by autorickshaws and two-wheelers, both of which are highly polluting. If we draw up a list, there are many more factors contributing to Delhi’s environmental disaster.

So why did  Mr Kejriwal choose the option of allowing even-numbered cars on even dates and odd-numbered on odd dates? Because it was the easiest option. Ideally, he should have banned the worst polluters of the road, vehicles like buses, trucks autorickshaws and two-wheelers. Going even further, he should have banned all diesel vehicles. Are any of these options realistically possible? Delhi would probably have one riot after another as the large mass of working people would have found it impossible to get to work and children to school.

One of the more polluting factors in the Delhi area is the use of wood and cheap coal for choolahs for cooking and for keeping warm in winter. Could  Mr Kejriwal have banned those without causing untold misery for the poor? Yet another factor affecting Delhi’s air is the widespread use of diesel generators to compensate for power cuts. Could he ban those without inconveniencing a huge number of people? Therefore, Mr Kejriwal has chosen the least of all evils.

Since it’s a national trait to procrastinate till matters come to a head, the Delhi crisis may finally galvanise the government to action. And by government, I mean the Central government because really, this is not just Delhi’s problem, but the whole country’s. Is there a comprehensive national policy on the environment? There clearly isn’t, because everything changes according to which politician is in charge of the ministry of environment and forests. Jairam Ramesh and Prakash Javadekar form the two extremes of the spectrum, the former far too strict about enforcing green norms, the latter too cavalier about them. Should something as important as the environment be left to the whims and fancies of individuals? The recent Paris agreement might force our hand, but surely the onus should be on us to improve the quality of air.

The dual pricing of diesel and petrol has resulted in the number of diesel cars overtaking the number of petrol vehicles. To discourage future growth in this segment, the prices of diesel and petrol should be brought on par. To mitigate hardship to goods carriers and to prevent a price rise in essential commodities, diesel itself could have dual pricing — on par with petrol for passenger cars and at the present level for trucks, lorries and buses.

The use of compressed natural gas (CNG) for public vehicles needs to be speedily expanded as should be the use of hybrid cars. Hybrid cars get many concessions in the UK, like reduction and exemption from road and congestion taxes, and many people have switched to these vehicles because of these advantages. All electric cars, at present in miniscule numbers, are to be encouraged by giving them excise and other large tax benefits so that they become more affordable than they are now.

The ultimate aim, of course, must be to make public transport so comfortable and efficient that even people with cars would prefer to use buses, trains and metros rather than private vehicles as happens overseas. How long have we been saying this in a city like Mumbai? The emphasis by the civic administration has instead been on building infrastructure for private cars. The multiple flyovers, expressways, the sea link and the proposed coastal road may be necessary to cope with the city’s ever-increasing car population. Instead, if the emphasis had been on public transport many of these expensive additions might have been unnecessary. A comprehensive environmental policy would have taken even factors like these into consideration.

There are many other aspects that need to be considered. Electricity for cities relies too heavily on thermal power, which requires the burning of coal. However much you treat the resulting smoke, this adds to the pollution of cities. The availability of hydro power is obviously limited, so the need to harness solar energy and wind power,  in a greater proportion than at present, becomes imperative. The government has decreed mandatory percentages.  But given the desperate situation are these enough? A new environmental policy would revisit these numbers and change them to reduce our dependence on thermal power.

As Delhi’s desperate situation shows — and the figures for Mumbai and other cities have begun to tell us — we have reached the point of no return. We are now at a stage where we will be telling our children, “Boys and girls, watch television, don’t play outside.” Pretty soon, we might well be walking around wearing masks and our hospitals will be full of asthmatic children and young people whose lungs will be like chain smokers’ although they haven’t touched a cigarette in their lives.

The writer is a senior journalist

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