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Capital’s unbreathable air: No clean-up till we own up

columns Updated: Feb 23, 2015 00:06 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh


Swine flu has been a big scare this winter. Even those suffering from common cold, cough or fever are taking a long time to recover. Many patients have suffered relapses. Others are complaining how even antibiotics have failed to provide relief. No wonder, Kiran Bedi’s throat infection and Arvind Kejriwal’s Crocin pill were the top trending topics on the social media during the recently-concluded Delhi elections.

Doctors say rising levels of air pollution in Delhi are suppressing our immunity, making us vulnerable to lung infections, heart attacks and cancer. Studies collated by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) show that more than 3,000 premature deaths occur every year in Delhi due to air pollution-related diseases. Half of Delhi’s population lives within 500 metres from arterial roads and is directly affected by vehicular pollution.

In their latest report last week, CSE found that people in Delhi were exposed to 2-4 times higher levels of toxic air while travelling in public transport such as buses, metro, autos or even walking. With windows rolled up, cars may be safer for those travelling in them but their sheer numbers are asphyxiating the rest who can’t afford them.

The eight million vehicles on Delhi’s roads are not just clogging up the city. They are taking a deathly toll. But the government’s clean-up strategy has so far remained on paper, mainly because it focuses too much on long-term, capital-intensive solutions.

Delhi’s Metro in its 12th year is already ferrying 2.5 million passengers daily. Work on Phase 3 is underway and would give us an additional 150 kms of connectivity by the end of next year. But the city can’t bank on just one system to solve its public transport woes. Metro anyway requires huge investments with Phase-3 costing us `45,000 crore. And it takes time to build.

Experts say the bulk of the public transport services in any city have to be bus-based because it is cheaper and can be pressed into service as soon as the vehicles are procured. In Delhi, bus ridership is already 60% higher than Metro’s. But to run to its full potential, the Delhi Transport Corporation needs to double its fleet and reach to ensure last-mile connectivity, improve frequency, install display boards showing routes and timetables and bring the buses under GPS surveillance.

The AAP government would need `4,000 crore to fulfill its promise of giving Delhi 5,000 additional buses. It also needs to take a call on regulation of e-rickshaws, the best non-polluting, last-mile connectivity option available to commuters travelling on a small budget.

Revival of Ring Rail, another promise in the AAP manifesto, needs to be delivered faster. Started during the 1982 Asian Games, it is the most under-utilised transport infrastructure in the capital. With a minor fare revision, cleaning up of its 23 stations, and some publicity, this could be an effective link in the city’s transport system.

Public transport needs to be integrated not just within Delhi, but across the NCR towns. In the absence of connectivity options, Gurgaon, Ghaziabad and Noida have seen the same kind of private vehicular growth as in Delhi. The pollution levels are probably as bad in NCR towns if not worse than Delhi. But there is no proper monitoring of air quality.

Delhi, of course, tracks its air pollution levels round-the-clock at over two dozen locations in the city. While one can check the real-time ambient quality on official websites, this data is not processed and converted into health advisories.

Beijing, one of the world’s most polluted cities, has a colour-coded smog alert system since October 2013, although the city authorities are criticised for not pressing the panic button every time they should. In the last two years, Paris has used its pollution alert effectively, opening up its public transport system to everyone for free on days the air quality worsens.

Delhi needs a smog alert system that not only helps vulnerable people to take precautions but also raises awareness about the pollution levels, forcing specific and immediate action from authorities. And it doesn’t cost a bomb.