By Ruma Dubey
Last year, around the same time, just when the chills of winter were setting in, we read with great amusement the news about Beijing being the most polluted city, the way how smog was forcing people to wear masks. We use the word “amuse” to describe our feeling because we were feeling smug – see how mindless industrialization has led China to where it is today.
But today, can we laugh at ourselves? The mantle has passed – from Beijing to New Delhi as the most polluted city in the world. The quality of air here is 1.5 times worse than what Beijing had. Schools have made it mandatory for children to come wearing masks and sale of air purifiers is sure to shoot through the roof as almost everyone is installing it – homes, shops, offices, schools. With a “Make in India” campaign we aspire to become another China but are we environmentally ready for this?
In this context, what AAP is doing is perfect. At least it is paying attention to the problems of the people and not indulging in mere politicking. The good part is that it is taking lessons from Beijing. AAP has identified the causes of this pollution – the burning of agricultural waste in crop fields, burning of garbage, vehicular pollution, incessant construction activity and dust settling down on roads. Winter makes it worse – when the wind speed is almost zero and the weather is cold, it traps the pollutants close to earth’s surface.
A research released by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health on November 18 said that coarse particles released in the air from construction projects among other things were extremely harmful for humans. Delhi generates at least 4,000 tonnes of construction debris every day, of this only 10% is recycled while the 90% is dumped anywhere. Till date, we have looked at only smaller particles released from automobile exhaust or power plants that could damage the lungs and enter the bloodstream.
Amongst many other measures, the AAP Govt has proposed implementing the Odd-Even car rationing policy in Delhi. This is a good proposal in the sense that at least some step is being taken, something is being thought of, instead of only discussing it. So starting 1st Jan 2016, Delhi roads will see Od-number plated cars only – on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Even-numbered cars on even dates and odd-numbered cars on add dates. Sunday is free-for-all.
Naturally, car owners in Delhi are miffed as this they feel is not a practical solution. There is no comfortable public transport system in place so what do people do on alternate days? Carpooling does not work. Delhi Metro is packed during peak hours like sardines in a can. Taxi’s loot you and buses are simply not an option.
Actually, Delhi is not the first country in the world to do this. In 2014, Paris imposed a driving restriction based on license plate numbers, similar to what Delhi is planning to do. It also reduced speed limits around Paris by 20 kmph and more importantly - provided all public transportation for free to encourage one and all to use it. Violators would be fined 22 euros. And it worked! The city was able to bring down emissions and pollution to the permissible limits within one-day! But big difference here – Delhi has a population which is over 9 times that of Paris.
Other countries which did it were Mexico where it worked and Bogota where it did not. Beijing in 2008, before the Olympics, imposed restrictions on private vehicles by allowing even and odd license plates to drive on alternate days with the violators having to cough up 200 yuan for breaking the rules. It worked brilliantly – it reported a daily reduction of vehicle emissions of up to a staggering 40%!
Similar bans were seen in Athens (1982), Santiago( 1986, 2001), Metro Manila (1995), Sao Paulo (1997), La Paz (2003), San Jose (2005), Quito (2010). Honduras even implemented a country-wide ban in 2008.
Yesterday, for the first time, Beijing sounded a red alert, forcing schools and offices to shut as air quality worsened, much below the stipulated “safe” level. Are we going to have something like this too? Yesterday, the quality of air was as bad as Beijing but for us, it was life as usual. You can look up air pollution data on http://safar.tropmet.res.in/.
These measures taken by Delhi are great; at least some measures are being taken, at least the Govt has woken up to this scary reality. All these might be stop gap arrangements to tide over the winter. But they need to be more fundamental – where permanent solutions are needed. There has to be a law for mandatory recycling of construction waste. There has to be an alternate to burning agro waste. Cars alone are not the culprit – it is the fuel used and quality of car engine which causes the damage.
Delhi Pollution Control Committee does plan to introduce an app so that information is available to residents with smartphones. It plans to install around 70 big screens in strategic locations around the city advising residents what they can do to reduce pollution. Knowledge is empowerment – at least people are recognizing that there is a problem and ca take necessary precautionary measures.
- Impose a congestion charge - extra fees for rush-hour drivers.
- Corporate India can join hands with Govt – introduce flexi hours to minimize traffic at peak hours, take steps to create awareness.
- Implement the Euro 6 norms – a set of stringent emission norms to be adapted by car makers.
- Make the public transportation stronger and more convenient to use – like the MRT of Singapore or the Tube in London.
- Build more freeways so that traffic can move away from the city, especially for trucks.
- Yes, it might not sound auto-friendly but we need to make owning a car more expensive – both in terms of registration as well as cost – just like in Singapore.
- Parking should be exorbitantly costly – people will automatically use public transport.
We need to change the way we live and think or else one day, we all will not be able to breathe at all – Mumbai and the rest of India….are you hearing the warning bells?