Should we allow polluted Delhi to slip into coma?

By Vikas Khanna

New Delhi, Dec. 31 (ANI): Here are some frightening facts on pollution. Air pollution kills more than 6, 27,000 in India, according to the World Health Organization. India has 13 of the 20 most polluted cities of the world. And our national capital New Delhi has the world’s dirtiest air, earning it the dubious distinction of the most polluted city of the world.

In a city of 18 million people, we have 8.5 million vehicles, and still counting. And at least, if not more, 1,500 new vehicles are added to Delhi’s roads every day. New Delhi has the highest number of vehicles in the country, more than three other metros — Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai — put together. Delhi accounts for more than 8 percent of the total registered vehicles in the country. In the last decade, vehicle numbers have increased by more than 100 percent. Is it an achievement that we should be proud of?

Vehicular emissions cause close to three-quarters of Delhi’s air pollution. The WHO found that Delhi had an average of 153 micrograms of the smallest particles, known as PM2.5s, per cubic metre in its air. The international “safe” level for these particles is six micrograms per cubic metre. Is it not a scary scenario? There have been rising incidences of allergies, respiratory problems and birth anomalies, thanks to city’s toxic air.

Then why are we making such a hue and cry after the Delhi government came out with an odd-even car formula, that, too, on a trial basis for a fortnight, just because it will inconvenience us? There is no doubt that the proposal will lead to chaos. To begin with, our daily routine will be badly disturbed.

But is it not the time to press the panic button and bite the bullet? We are to be blamed for the mess that we find ourselves to be in. How do we explain that a small family of three or four people having an equal number of cars? It has become status symbol for many to park high-end cars outside their homes as coveted trophies, leaving little space for people to even walk.

Over the years, roads of Delhi, one of the widest in the country, have shrunk with no space for pedestrians and cyclists. The pavements today appear to be extension of road as bikers use them unabashedly. One just can’t walk and cycle because it is fraught with dangers. A 2012 road accident data shows a person is either injured or killed in a road accident in Delhi every hour.

Today Delhi has become gas chamber. The air has become so polluted that we breathe toxic air when we take a stroll out in park in the morning. So what do we do? Should we not take corrective steps?

When the first car-free day was kicked off from Red Fort to Bhagwan Das Road on October 22 this year, studies found that there was a dramatic 60 percent drop in the amount of dangerous pollutants in comparison to the previous day. There is no doubt that if 30 to 40 percent cars are off Delhi roads, air will be much less pollutant.

Critics say Delhiites will puncture government’s good intention by buying another car or cars, as it happened in Mexico, defeating the purpose. Yes, we Delhiites are quite capable of doing that. But how many of us will be able to buy new cars? There is no doubt that car rationing is not the only solution. It will have to be accompanied with several harsh measures. The government should keep a tab on the people buying cars. Those found having more than two cars should be slapped with a heavy road tax. The monitoring agency should also ask the buyer whether he has parking lot for the vehicle. Those using the second lane of roads as parking lots should be fined.

Counterfeiting of number plates is another problem the authorities will have to grapple with as an English daily recently found out. Scheming people are already out with innovative ideas! It will be very difficult to differentiate between a genuine and a counterfeit number plate.

Critics also point to Delhi’s inadequate public transport system which will not be able to take the load if 30 or 40 percent private vehicles are off roads. The government has promised to add more than 3,000 vehicles but it will have to procure much more if it wants the system to work. The government will also have to sort out the last mile problems if it wants people to use more public transportation.

The National Green Tribunal should be lauded for suggesting a ban of all vehicles older than 15 years from the streets of Delhi beginning April next year. It will take off at least one-third of the total vehicles from the roads. Authorities should also test vehicles regularly for pollution levels. And those vehicles found emitting pollution more than the limits should be penalized.

Subsidies on diesel should end. Cheaper diesel fuel has led to people buying more diesel vehicles. Diesel car sales accounted just four percent in 2000. Today diesel cars are half of new car sales. According to WHO, diesel emissions have strong link with lung cancer.

There is a desperate need to create public awareness to switch off engines while waiting at traffic signals. An idling vehicle is likely to cause more pollution than the running vehicle.

Buses and minibuses should not be allowed to stop longer than necessary to pick up or put down passengers.

Buses should not be allowed to take more than two lanes of the left side of the road to avoid traffic jams. Traffic jams contribute heavily to pollute air.

And lastly, pollution is not the problem of Delhi Government only. The Centre should also pitch in to make the programme a success. Timing of government offices should be staggered and the sarkari babus should work in shifts as it happens in corporate houses. Why everybody in government offices has to report at 9 in the morning and leave around 5 p.m.? If the timings are staggered by two hours beginning 8 a.m. in three shifts, considerable traffic will be off the roads at a particular time to beat congestion. Delhi’s congestion has more than doubled in the last 10 years and the day is not far when the average speed of the vehicle will be five kiometres an hour. Until and unless road congestion is not improved, the war against pollution cannot be won.

We have won this war before. When Sheila Dikshit government moved polluting industries out of the city, closed down coal-based power plants and introduced cleaner CNG in public transport vehicles, the air quality improved significantly. But sadly we let the guard down. We can do it again. What we need is a will and self-discipline. We own Delhi and we won’t let it choke to die. It should be our New Year resolve.

[Vikas Khanna is a senior journalist and the views expressed in this article are personal] (ANI)

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