Like our governments, we too have a short memory. Now that the sun is barely out for three days, not many recall the thick grey blanket that hung low over the city most of the last two weeks and left us gasping for breath.
Delhi gets smog every winter. But last week it persisted
for too long. On November 9, Delhi had already clocked 207 hours of smog cover, just 38 hours less than 245 hours recorded during the entire month of November in 2008. Scientists at the Met office say this could be the worst onset since 1989 when fog data was analysed for the first time.
First, the government dismissed it as a weather phenomenon. Burning farm waste in the neighbouring states was contributing to Delhi's soot-laden air. So were the smoke-spewing thermal plants and industries on the city's borders.
The Supreme Court issued a warning and, finally, the government got around to discussing the problem. The neighbours agreed not to burn their farm waste. The Delhi government warned of strict penalties for those who burned leaves and garbage, and stringent action against polluting vehicles entering the city.
Like dengue casualties and power lines tripping, the blame for this one too was conveniently passed on to the neighbouring states. But Delhi cannot deny its own pollution, said the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) last week. Respirable particulate matter (PM10) has increased by 47% between 2000 and 2011, while nitrogen dioxide has gone up by 57%, the environment watchdog warned. The factors responsible for smog persist and the worst is yet to come. The pledges made in schools will be forgotten and Diwali will yet again be one smoky, noisy celebration tomorrow.
But Delhi's real problem is the city's seven million vehicles. One in every 10 vehicles of India is registered in this city and the number is growing by 10% every year. So the advantages of turning the fleet of 100,000 buses, taxis and auto rickshaws to Compressed Natural Gas-mode in 2002 have been lost. Today, the air pollution in Delhi is comparable to the pre-CNG days. Surprisingly, the government doesn't have a clean-up plan. It is clearly not short of ideas. For years, almost all expert studies commissioned by the government have recommended congestion tax and road space rationing. It does not matter if the cars are run on petrol or diesel; it's their sheer numbers that choke our roads and lungs.
One glitch has been the absence of a cohesive public transport system. But now, the 10-year-old Delhi Metro ferries 20 lakh passengers daily. Yet at least 700 new cars hit Delhi's roads every day. Clearly, not many of those who can afford to buy cars are using the Metro. The absence of last-mile connectivity - means to commute to and from Metro stations- is a major reason for that. We need more feeder buses, 'share' autos and taxis and a well-regulated non-motorised vehicle system and cycle tracks.
The United Kingdom's first air pollution law was enacted soon after the great smog of 1952 killed thousands. It took London more than four decades since banning coal fires to introduce congestion fees charged from private motor vehicles operating in city centre between 7 am and 6 pm on weekdays.
This not only helped reduce pollution and congestion but also helped the state raise investment for the city's transport system.
London's fight, however, is far from over. Air pollution costs the UK an estimated £20bn a year and is recognised by the government as the second-biggest public health threat, after smoking. In Delhi, we haven't even started our fight. This smog is Delhi's last call to action. If we further delay the basic reforms, time will leave our side.