Shortcuts to Check Pollution Are No Alternative to Better Urban Planning
By Yogesh Vajpeyi | Published: 19th December 2015 10:00 PM |
The slew of orders issued by the Supreme Court on Wednesday to curb high pollution levels in the national capital, coming close on the heels of the AAP government’s proposed restriction on entry of cars based on registration numbers, underline a deep malaise in our urban planning. The overall transport policy of the government and traffic management in the national and state capitals as well as major metropolitan centres weighs heavily in favour of the rich at the cost of the common man.
The apex court has banned entry of trucks that are over 10 years old in Delhi if their destination is not the capital. It has placed a three-month ban on registration of diesel cars with over 2,000 cc capacity, directed all taxis in Delhi to run on CNG and has doubled the pollution surcharge on vehicles—it had already directed all buses to convert to CNG to reduce air pollution way back.
The court’s wide-ranging directions come shortly after it voiced its concern in strong words about rising pollution, saying that rich people can’t go around in SUVs polluting the environment. It has backed the Kejriwal government’s odd-even policy on private cars.
Days before the Delhi government’s order, the high court had remarked that living in the city was akin to living in a gas chamber, and asked the Centre and the state government to take comprehensive steps to tackle the issue. With the latest directives, the judiciary appears to have taken a firm stand on reducing air pollution in the city, notorious for being the most polluted in the world.
Given the falling air quality in Delhi, the odd-even numbered car plan for alternate days is being projected as the bitter pill citizens will have to swallow. However, this step can boomerang if it is not accompanied by a series of complementary measures to ‘de-pollute’ as well as decongest the city.
Arguably, the issue is contentious. Scientists and government agencies continue to squabble over who is a bigger pollutant—cars, dust or industrial pollution. Industries have already been moved out of the city in the past two decades. Dust flying from construction sites and open spaces does contribute to pollutants in the air and needs to be addressed. While the blame game continues, there is no getting away from the fact that motorised vehicles—cars, two-wheelers, commercial vehicles—are one of the major pollutants and there are eight million of them in Delhi. It is a given that along with drastic measures to ration road space, the government needs to improve public transport, enforce stricter emission norms and also tone up modes of transport such as three-wheelers and taxis.
In social media, such moves have met with a volley of criticism, mostly by those who depend on personal transport, not by those who live and work in the open. It is undisputed that Delhi’s roads teem with cars, a fetid smog hangs almost permanently over its air, especially in the winters. The recently instituted National Air Quality Index has reserved its worst for Delhi’s air, which it ranks as “severe” on most days and “very poor” on others. According to it, Delhi’s air was “severe” on 20 days in November with PM 2.5 levels going above 500 microgram/cubic metre—well above the standard set by the WHO at 25 microgram/cubic metre or even the lenient standard of 60 microgram/cubic metre set by the Central Pollution Control Board.
The car entry restriction formula has been tried out with mixed results in various parts of the world, including Beijing, Mexico City and Paris. Some parts of Delhi—and Gurgaon—have observed car-free days in the past few months and there has been appreciable decline in pollution levels on those days. But Delhi—in fact all Indian cities—requires a lot more than road rationing to bring down pollution to bearable levels in the long term. A robust public transport is the first among essentials. Public transport meets over 60 per cent of Delhi’s demands but occupies only five per cent of the roads.
Clearly, more space should be allocated to public transport. However, this alone will not help. A recent study claims road rationing did not improve Mexico City’s air quality, in spite of its efficient public transport system, because the rich went ahead and bought more cars. A healthy public transport system does not always wean people off cars and an assorted middle class will remain besotted with cars unless it is deterred. Restricting entry of motorised vehicle to Delhi is, at best, a short-term band-aid. It must precede more long-term measures encouraging public transport, disincentives to private transport and eventually better urban planning.
Vajpeyi is a freelance journalist and media consultant