Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) ranked New Delhi as the world’s worst city in terms of air pollution. Our experts promptly contested the findings, pointing out that the pollution levels of Beijing, the Chinese capital, were worse than Delhi’s in summer and much worse in monsoon months. Only on certain winter days our air pollution reaches Beijing’s levels due to adverse meteorological factors.
So should we be smug? We are perhaps too accustomed to Delhi’s air to tell how polluted is polluted enough. But ask any international tourist visiting Delhi for the first time and she will tell how our air smells of burnt paper.
The government didn’t have a clean-up plan till two years back when Delhi clocked 12 days of continuous smog in November 2012. The Supreme Court intervened, extracting promises of refor ms and regulations from the government. The Delhi government warned of strict penalties for those who burned leaves and garbage, and stringent action against polluting vehicles entering the city. It also promised to put in place an air quality index on display boards, recommending motorists to use public transport and warning people about the ill effects of smog. But already in election mode, fighting air pollution was the last thing on the government’s mind.
Delhi’s biggest problem is its eight 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 1,00,000 buses, taxis and auto rickshaws to Compressed Natural Gas-mode in 2002 have been squandered. Today, air pollution in Delhi is comparable to the pre-CNG days.
For years, almost all expert studies commissioned by the government have recommended congestion pricing and road space rationing. Singapore (1975), London (2003) and Milan (2008) have introduced it successfully. Beijing plans to do it by next year.
The government has to provide decent travel alternatives and then take tough measures. The 12-year-old Delhi Metro ferries 2.5 million 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.
Many stretches of Delhi are still not on the Metro map. The absence of last-mile connectivity — means to commute to and from Metro stations— and overcrowding are the other dampeners. According to Centre for Science and Environment, bus ridership in Delhi dropped from 60% in 2000 to 40% in 2012. As a result, Metro is always packed during peak hours. RITES, a government-owned engineering consultancy, forecasts that even after the completion of the Metro project, its ridership will be at 20% of the vehicular traffic in 2021. Therefore, it recommends, the bulk of the public transport services will have to be bus-based.
Metro runs on time but the bus service is not dependable. For several years, the government has been promising the use of Global Positioning System on every bus to update the commuter waiting at the stop on the expected time of arrival of buses. The expensive LED display boards installed at all new bus stops built during the Commonwealth Games have either been vandalised or run trial messages. The kiosks to display bus routes and timetables lie vacant. The Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) system is plagued by a truncated route, poor bus frequency, few stops, and absence of a centralised management.
In Beijing, they have already declared a smog emergency. On days when there is a red alert, the city authorities have decided to ply 25,000 buses per day (against 21,000 on normal days) and extend its subway operation time by half an hour in the evening to accommodate an additional two million people on its public transport. This March, Paris authorities opened up their public transport system to everyone for free for three days when thick smog enveloped the city. ?
If we dither any longer over an action plan in the soot-laden car Capital of India, we will soon earn the choker’s tag, literally.