22/12/2015 8:21 AM IST | Updated 29/08/2016 7:06 PM IST

Why Reactive Policymaking Is No Panacea for Delhi's Pollution

ROBERTO SCHMIDT via Getty Images
To go with Climate-warming-UN-COP21-India,FOCUS by Trudy Harris In this November 16, 2015 photo, several cargo trucks make their way down an avenue near midnight in New Delhi. It is estimated that about 80,000 trucks transit through the heart of the city every night from 8 pm to 6 am. India's capital, with 18 million residents, has the world's most polluted air with six times the amount of small particulate matter (pm2.5) than what is considered safe, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The air's hazardous amount of pm2.5 can reach deep into the lungs and enter the blood, causing serious long term health effect, with the WHO warning India has the world's highest death rate from chronic respiratory diseases. India, home to 13 of the world's top 20 polluted cities, is also the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind the United States and China. In Delhi, the air pollution is due to vehicle traffic including cargo trucks running on low-grade diesel, individual fires that residents burn in winter, crop being burnt by farmers in neighboring states, and construction site dust. Burning coal in power plants is also major contributor that is expected to increase hugely in the coming decades to match electricity needs of the ever-growing city and its booming satellite towns. AFP PHOTO / ROBERTO SCHMIDT (Photo credit should read ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

There is a stark similarity between the disaster that struck Chennai recently and the ordeal that Delhiites will be subjected to in the coming month. Both are an outcome of the failure of successive governments to heed the repeated warnings of impending calamity and to take pre-emptive measures while planning urban development. If it was an overflowing lake that inundated Chennai -- thanks to clogged drains and waterways, land reclamation and unrestrained constructions -- the toxic scourge in Delhi is a result of its shabby urban infrastructure that's bursting at the seams, the abysmal state of public transport and an archaic construction culture that still defines the city's landscape.

A little over a decade ago, Delhi was running a crusade to redeem its breathing space from diesel-run public transport and fuming factories. Whatever little gain that was accrued from that momentum was squandered by the government's inability to create a sustainable infrastructure and public transport network to match the requirements of a national capital. The primary reasons cited for Delhi's pollution are the uncontrollable growth of light vehicles (emitting particulate matter) and rampant construction, besides seasonal influxes like crop burning in adjoining states and the uninhibited use of firecrackers during festivals.

The city's administration machinery deserves outright blame for aggravating, rather than reversing the primary stimulants that have made Delhi a 'gas chamber'.

The city's administration machinery deserves outright blame for aggravating, rather than reversing the primary stimulants that have made Delhi a "gas chamber". For over a decade, experts have been warning the uninhibited growth of light vehicular traffic into the city, with some media reports suggesting that over a thousand cars are being added every week. Policymakers flaunting the growth of the automotive industry overlooked the pollution spin-off that was integral to this influx, without devising norms to limit the emission imprint or develop a matching infrastructure. The lacuna of policy framing was writ large when the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered the banning of vehicles of a decade or more vintage and the city not having a single authorised recycling yard to dump the discarded lot.

Any fast-growing city would witness a tremendous demand for personal-owned vehicles when its public transport fails to provide last-mile connectivity or a decent network. City planners have to, hence, necessarily prioritise investments in all forms of mass-transit modes well in advance, anticipating a population surge. By that standard, Delhi should have started its Metro Rail construction at least by the late 1990s, like Chennai's Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS). Despite the now functioning Metro connectivity, the Delhi Transport Corporation's (DTC) bus network remains the public transportation mainstay.

For all its claims of an environment-friendly CNG fleet, DTC has an abysmal record in imparting time-bound service and connectivity to all nooks of the city. The only major public transportation initiative that was conceived in the last decade was the Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) in select corridors. In a city where bus connectivity is pathetic, BRTS caused massive traffic congestion thanks to its faulty construction. Even an effective tram system (like in European cities) could have served these corridors better as a mass transit option than building exclusive pathways for buses.

[Can] European solutions like the odd-even option, congestion and pollution taxes, and exclusion zones... be a tangible solution to this mess?

The miserable state of urban road infrastructure also raises serious doubts on the ability of the Public Works Department (PWD) to shape Delhi's architectural contours. The city was witness to a spate of engineering eye-sores that came up as part of the 2010 Commonwealth Games preparations. A notable example of lack of imagination or realistic planning is the Rao Tula Ram (RTR) Marg -- an arterial road supposed to be the entry point to the capital of a rising power. Two badly-designed flyovers, constructed without retaining sufficient road space, has created major bottlenecks and traffic congestion causing not just tremendous pollution in the area, wasting man-hours and fuel, but also spiralling jams to other parts of the city.

Five years after raising these structures, and realising their folly, the PWD is now preparing to build a parallel flyover in this sector, while retaining the same mistakes (of limited road space) and ignoring various choke-points that will vitiate the misery created by existing structures. Leave alone penalising those responsible for this mess, even the suggestions by the High Court and various agencies to decongest the area -- by developing alternative routes, underpasses at choke-points and sufficient road space -- has fallen on deaf ears. For that matter, flyovers across Delhi, owing to faulty designs, have caused more congestion than facilitating signal-free drives, which was their original purpose.

It is in this backdrop that the city mulls the odd-even proposal to restrict the use of personal cars as a recipe to address pollution. Two questions weigh in the minds of Delhi's denizens: (a) will this be a 15-day charade where all state systems will try to function optimally to undertake a symbolic experimentation? (b) Will restrictions on personal vehicles be the sensible way to address pollution? While the dominant perception is that the experiment is destined to fail thanks to the poor transportation infrastructure (despite resources outside the government's normal purview being garnered for the "road show"), many favour curbs on personal vehicles as a means to address the unmanageable traffic conundrum the city faces, irrespective of whether it reduces pollution.

The key to an orderly urban future for Delhi is a combination of realistic, imaginative and futuristic planning on urban infrastructure aided by effective public utility services.

The more significant point, though, is whether European solutions like the odd-even option, congestion and pollution taxes, and exclusion zones can be a tangible solution to this mess, despite knowing their inefficacy in Indian conditions. In a city where the population is vertically divided into those who need dependable public transport for day-to-day transit and those who can afford to surmount all forms of restrictive policies, realistic rather than reactive policy options will be the need of the hour.

Below are some short and long-term options planners could consider:

(a) Make substantial advancements in all modes of public transport -- involving both private and public operators, existing and new -- to give incentivised travel options to the population, with last-mile connectivity.

b) Strictly restrict the sale and purchase of new non-commercial vehicles in the city for the immediate future, with exceptions made only to those without personal vehicles or seeking to replace aged ones (as per NGT stipulations). This has to be followed up with a ban on sale of used vehicles in the city and setting up numerous recycling yards.

(c) Implement a credible (and corruption-free) Vehicle Health Check/Monitoring System, which could periodically assess and certify the health of a vehicle to ply in Delhi's roads.

These options apart, the key to an orderly urban future for Delhi is a combination of realistic, imaginative and futuristic planning on urban infrastructure aided by effective public utility services. The more relevant question, though, is whether promising initiatives could gain traction in a city that is low on civility, high on corruption and ignores common good.

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