Yesterday was the last day of the Auto Expo 2012 in New Delhi. It should have been the first day of ending our obsession with cars and instead, realise what this fascination is doing to our insides.
Over a decade ago, Delhi was a heroic city. It had successfully reduced air pollution by shifting buses and three-wheelers from diesel to CNG. But now, Delhi's residents are choking again. Recently, this paper reported 21 deaths a day from respiratory illnesses, up 40% from 2009. We don't yet have 2011 data, but it is unlikely to be significantly different.
My wheezing lungs, nagging cough and incessant bouts of sinusitis are reminders of this environmental disaster. Given the number of deaths and illness reported from respiratory conditions, I know I am not alone in my misery. We struggle because we live in one of the most (air) polluted cities in the world. Vehicular pollution contributes to 70% of Delhi's total pollution. Cars today result in only 15% of our vehicular trips, but still clog our roads. The projected growth of private cars in the coming five years is 50%. Taxis will similarly grow at 100%.
Today, suspended particulate matter and nitrous oxides, two deadly air pollutants, are well above the permissible limits. Besides, benzene, which has been linked with blood cancer, still abounds. No amount of clean fuel or green cars will help. We simply have to reduce the number of vehicles on the road.
The first step should be to improve public transportation and attract the middle classes. Delhi already has the metro, but its feeder service for onward journey is poor. Besides, it has attracted commuters who were using public transport - over 44% of the metro riders have shifted from buses to the metro.
Additionally, we need better buses that are efficient, safe and run on time. Delhi has several hundred cyclists - but since there is no proper infrastructure, cycling will remain a poor man's option instead of being a viable choice for others. Ironically, while 70% of the car-owners drive their cars, only 20% of the city's cycle-owners use their cycles.
The second step should be to reduce the number of private cars on the roads - we have 69 lakh vehicles registered in Delhi. There must be disincentives like exorbitant parking fees and limited registration for private vehicles. Large vehicles, such as SUVs, should not be registered at all. These are essential public health measures, and should not be feared as unpopular or too costly to implement.
But for a city that gets jammed by visitors going to an auto fair, a middle class that willingly shifts to public transport is the third vital factor to solve the problem. Delhi's own visible, hyper-consumption surpasses most other Indian cities. It is suicidal not to realise that this love for cars and SUVs is making us ill. The city's middle class needs to change its attitude and the government needs to invest more in top-notch public transportation. Who knows, if things do change, we may see beautiful models standing next to buses, and not swanky cars, in the coming years.
Bharati Chaturvedi is director, Chintan, a non-profit organisation working on green issues in Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal.