Car-free zones to curb pollution a great idea, but will not work in Delhi | analysis | Hindustan Times
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Car-free zones to curb pollution a great idea, but will not work in Delhi

Union urban development minister M Venkaiah Naidu told the New Delhi Municipal Council on Wednesday to convert Connaught Place and Khan Market into ‘no vehicle zones’ to. He must lead the charge by giving up his official vehicle.

Breathless in Delhi Updated: Nov 04, 2016 14:15 IST
KumKum Dasgupta
Children cover their face due to smog in New Delhi on November 3
Children cover their face due to smog in New Delhi on November 3(Sushil Kumar/HT PHOTO)

Union urban development minister M Venkaiah Naidu told the New Delhi Municipal Council on Wednesday to convert Connaught Place and Khan Market into ‘no vehicle zones’ to curb the city’s air pollution and traffic congestion.

The city of about 20 million, which ranks among the world’s top cities with its toxic air on a World Health Organization list, has been struggling to clean up its air that contains a toxic cocktail of dust, smoke and gases from vehicle and factory exhausts.

While I agree in principle with Naidu’s blockbuster of an idea, it will not work in Delhi.

Here’s why:

First, Delhi is full to the brim with touch-me-not people, and the number of such people per square foot is highest in central Delhi (Connaught Place–Khan Market area, aka Lutyens Delhi), the seat of government power.

So you have politicians, bureaucrats, judges, defence personnel, businessmen and diplomats moving in cars with beacons or UN/CC/CD number places.

This section will never agree to leave their cars and walk to Khan Market/CP.

In fact, both Khan Market and CP are connected by the Delhi Metro, but how many of the Lutyens’ Delhi residents use it?

If they can’t use a first-class system such as the Delhi Metro, I don’t think they will use any alternative transport system (battery-operated cars etc) that could be made available by the government to access these popular spots.

If they don’t follow, then be sure those in non-Lutyens areas won’t either, citing all kinds of problems: Lack of public transport, distance, cost, crowds etc.

Read: Make CP, Khan Market vehicle-free, says Naidu

In the West, politicians use cycles/public transport to reach their offices. Here, ministers don’t even use the fantastic Airport Express but opt for their polluting cavalcades.

The urban development minister must lead the way in this and start using public transport whenever possible.

Second, let’s not blame the residents of Lutyens’ Delhi only. There is a certain class of Indians who abhor the idea of walking, (at least in India).

It’s a culture thing (as well as fitness issue), especially in Delhi: To many among them, cars are an accessory and add to their social stature.

So what’s the point of buying a fancy car with a fancy number plate and not moving around in it?

Will they give up their vehicles for a pollution-free city? Not likely.

Third, traders are always against any transport rationing system, and the government of the day listens to them because, no surprises here, they are useful during civic elections.

Read: Odd-even scheme had little impact, didn’t cut Delhi pollution: Green panel

As expected, some have already spoken out against Naidu: “The biggest reason why Khan Market sees a lot of people above the age of 40 is because they feel safe. Now if you pedestrianise the area, they will stop coming as cars will be parked far away and hawkers will start encroaching. Khan Market is a high street market, not a mall,” said Khan Market Traders Association president, Sanjeev Mehra.

Put simply, he means: Our high-end shoppers will not walk down to the market. Oh, those dirty hawkers, how can they ‘pollute’ Khan Market!

Traders in Connaught Place (CP) --- an area where it is a pleasure to walk --- said that it would lead to long traffic jams on the roads just outside CP.

Fourth, there is no political will to push this idea through. There never likely to be.

Check: What your AQI?

We have heard this plan before but governments have never managed to roll it out, fearing an electoral backlash.

Take for example, the odd-even scheme. After two rounds, the Delhi government is not keen to revive it but is now focusing on giant air purifiers and mist sprayers. The idea was worth pursuing for a few more rounds.

Fifth, what is stopping the government from taking strong measures such as taxing cars heavily and hiking parking fees in areas such as Connaught Place?

By the way, parking in Khan Market is free (paid by the traders’ association).

The obvious counter-argument of the I-can’t-leave-my-car brigade is lack of proper urban transport over-crowding, weather etc.

But unless people shift to public transport, the government will not invest in improving it.

If you can’t do your bit to curb pollution then don’t expect clean air.

But do remember that it is a do-or-die situation.