The Delhi government’s move to ration road space has a lot of us worried. The National Green Tribunal has cautioned that people may now be pushed to buy a second car. Many car owners, particularly women, feel public transport is not reliable or safe. Some argue that two-wheelers - apparently exempted from the road space rationing initiative - are more polluting than cars. Others insist that road dust and burning of trash are bigger culprits.
Seasonal variations and different sample sizes make it difficult to pinpoint the biggest pollutant in Delhi. In winter, according to an IIT-Kanpur study, vehicle emissions account for 60% of Delhi’s air pollution.
Coal-fired power plants are a menace and have been told to shut operations. Then there are trash burning and hundreds of construction rubble dumps. The government has promised to fine these violators although enforcement has been tardy.
The bottomline is simple though: We must counter pollution on all fronts and there is no room for an ‘after-you’ approach. Yes, curtailing movements or use of private cars will be hard on people who depend on them. But no change is easy and few would know it better than millions of Delhi residents.
In the early 2000s, Delhi’s air was almost as sooty as it is now. Vehicle emissions were responsible for 67% of the pollution. More than the cars, the diesel buses, autos and taxis were to blame for the mess. Having already ordered that all public vehicles would run only on CNG, a relatively cleaner fuel, the Supreme Court finally put its foot down in April 2002. Facing steep daily fines, 7,000 diesel buses and numerous autos and taxis went off Delhi’s roads almost overnight.
Those were pre-Metro days. With seven cars per 100 persons -compared to 16 per 100 now - the dependence on public transport was bigger. All the government could do was to temporarily hire some rickety mini buses. Schools were shut down for two days and many of us hitch-hiked to get to work. It was painful.
But Delhi hung on till, by December 2002, its CNG-run public transport became the largest such green fleet in the world. Within four months of the switchover, the presence of sulphur dioxide in Delhi’s air halved and RSPM levels fell from 574 to 273 mg per cubic metre, noted Ranjan Das and Kajari Mukherjee in their book Complex Issues Management and Tactics.
In 2002, Delhi’s non-car-owning majority shouldered the entire burden of rescuing the city’s air. Today, can the car-owning minority baulk at the inconvenience of doing its bit? If the reluctance in some stems from a wealth-induced sense of entitlement, it is only fair that they follow the ‘polluter pays’ principle - that those who cause pollution should bear the costs of mitigating it.
If amortised for useful life, a car owner pays Rs 300 a year as road tax, a one-time parking and registration fee in Delhi, says Centre for Science and Environment. Plus, there are some minor cess paid on purchase of fuel. In return, car owners take up more road space than any other mode of transport. Parking devours close to 10% of Delhi’s urban land. But parking fee remains among the lowest in the world.
No wonder we have completely squandered the 2002 advantage with pollution levels now back to pre-CNG days. With 450 cars being added to Delhi’s massive private fleet daily, the time has probably come for hefty taxes on purchasing more than one car per family unit.
The odd-even restriction is just an experiment that will last 15 days. It may or may not work in the long run. Experiences from Mexico City, Bogotá and Beijing have not been very encouraging. But whether it is road space rationing or congestion taxing, capping the number of cars on Delhi roads is a decision we can’t put off for too long.
Meanwhile, here is a thought for the car owner. Not many commuters stranded due to the sudden disappearance of public transport during the 2002 CNG switchover days recall being offered a lift in the private cars that swished by. Yet, they did not protest against the presence of private diesel vehicles on the road. Come 2016, Delhi’s car owners should learn to value the public transport system, however inefficient, that they have been always welcome to share.