Instead of flowing like water, traffic in Delhi moves in fits and starts like blobs of sludge. There are historical reasons for this. Since 1947, the people of Delhi have belonged to the community of the world’s worst drivers. In their precocious hands, cars, trucks, scooter-rickshaws, buses and motorbikes turn into bulldozers.
They plough through red lights and cut through lanes, push forward any old how in the mistaken belief that their brand of ‘driving’ will accelerate their progress. Their reasoning is potholed; the chaos they weave slows everyone down.
They simply haven’t grasped the logic of driving in a straight line, one behind the other, within the markings of a lane: the shortest and quickest way from point A to point B. Ask them what lanes are and question marks glisten on their foreheads.
They break every traffic law in the book and get away with it. Impervious to the chaos around them, most policemen look the other way, while politicians don’t give a hoot or a honk. It doesn’t affect them, does it? No vote banks here.
That’s why a drive of eleven kilometre--15 minutes in any other city in the world--takes sixty tedious minutes in Delhi. In that time, each polluting vehicle has caused four times the environmental damage it would have in cities with more civic sense.
Now that the data is out and Delhi has been labeled an environmental pariah, various solutions are in the air. Not one addresses the problem of errant drivers, whose selfish and slapdash ways choke the streets of Delhi, causing its asphyxiation.
While the odd/even formula will reduce the number of cars on the road, it will not teach those behind the wheel the basics of civilised conduct. Until that happens, a drive of 11 kilometre will continue to take more time than it should and pollution levels will continue to hover around the danger mark.
What escapes the government is this simple fact: The more time each vehicle spends on the road, the greater the damage it does to the atmosphere. While cars pollute the air, unruly drivers accentuate the problem four-fold. An advanced Euro-VI compliant engine is no good if drivers keep obstructing the flow of traffic, causing unnecessary jams and bottlenecks that further poison the air.
To control pollution in the long-term, the government must look beyond the limited role of engines and fuel. It must examine the entire apparatus, from driving schools to the RTO, from synchronized traffic lights to law enforcement.
As things stand, driving schools employ instructors as unschooled as the people they ‘teach’. These ‘mom-and-pop’ businesses produce raw monsters who can’t tell left from right, green from red, humans from stones, traffic lanes from their grandmothers, a no-entry sign from a crow and whiskey from water. They graduate from driving schools with one hand on the horn, the other clutching a mobile phone, and a foot that darts, often in panic, from the accelerator to the brake. Every day, hundreds of these ‘licensed’ brutes are let loose on the streets of Delhi.
In the national capital region, a license can be bought--just like a bottle of water. I have heard of a water seller at an RTO who can arrange a license in a day for a thousand rupees. Presumably, officials of the licensing authority and the police share the spoils.
In recent days, several pollution-control measures have been mooted. Discouraging the use of diesel cars; enforcing the odd/even formula; delaying the entry of trucks from 9pm to 11pm; adding flesh to the skeletal public transport system; vacuum cleaning roads; car pooling; planting trees; making Euro-VI engines mandatory; and shutting down thermal power plants.
Much more can be done: Paving walkways to metro stations to promote commuter access; mandatory last mile public conveyance from metro stations to major commercial hubs (right now it exists only on paper); the introduction of ‘golf cart’ taxis for short rides (from, say, residential blocks to the local market); the reduction of duties/taxes on electric cars; and subsidies on research and development of solar-powered cars.
While the government’s immediate agenda has immense value, the addition of strict traffic management will go a long way in making sure wayward drivers don’t negate its impact through toxic jams. The restoration of Delhi’s air is in the hands of those who reduce driving time and flow in traffic streams. Only if the government acts on the matter will Delhi quicken the pace of its recovery.
(Ajai Pasricha is a communications consultant and an advertising professional of 36 years standing. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed are personal.)