Delhi model: Good environment policies also make good politics
This week, I joined city leaders from 94 of world’s greatest metropolises around the globe at the C40 Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen to take bold action to address the issues of climate change and air pollution. Since I couldn’t be there in person, I joined them throught videoconferencing.
Representing over 700 million citizens and a quarter of the global economy, these cities, of which Delhi is a member, have come together to form a global coalition to deliver a healthier and sustainable future to their citizens. While speaking at this summit, I was reminded of the words used by the young climate activist from Sweden, Greta Thunberg, at the United Nations Climate Summit. She said, “You all come to us, young people, for hope. How dare you. You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. People are suffering, people are dying, entire eco-systems are collapsing.”
While some may disagree with Thunberg’s methods, the issues of climate change and pollution that she is raising are finding increasing support from people across the globe, especially those who have the biggest stake in our planet’s future — the youth. Yet, world leaders seem to have lagged behind in fully understanding the gravity of the situation. Political leadership has to provide direction to safeguard the lives of our future generations.
During our first year in office, with the onset of the winter of 2015, the air quality in Delhi started deteriorating. Due to temperature inversion, a thick blanket of smog engulfed the city and its surroundings. The Delhi High Court termed Delhi a gas chamber. There were two major reasons behind this alarming situation — the smoke coming to Delhi from neighbouring states due to crop residue burning, and the smoke from firecrackers burnt during Diwali.
This was an extraordinary situation, and it required an extraordinary response. As the chief minister of Delhi, I had to take a call on what to do. After a lot of deliberation, our government decided to introduce the experiment of reducing vehicles drastically on Delhi roads for a fortnight, which was unheard of in our country till then — the odd-even scheme.
This was not easy. We were warned that the odd-even scheme had failed wherever it was implemented in any city across the world because people didn’t cooperate. I was aware of the fact that what we were venturing into was asking the residents of my city to change their way of living. We were asking them to give up their comfort for the collective good of the city. I was apprehensive about how people would respond to the government’s decision.
But we chose to trust Delhiites and undertook a massive awareness campaign through both the media and personal outreach, which was supported by flawless implementation by different government agencies. People followed odd-even beyond our wildest imagination and it was a huge success.
This support from the people gave us tremendous encouragement and strength to, one by one, introduce several more measures to reduce pollution. The use of diesel vehicles was restricted; measures were taken to control levels of dust pollution at construction sites; all coal-based power plants were closed; the Supreme Court-mandated emergency action plan (Grap) was strictly enforced; all industrial units in Delhi were made to switch to clean fuels; and a large-scale afforestation drive was initiated across Delhi.
Today, after four years, the pollution levels in Delhi have stopped increasing. In fact, it has reduced by 25%. Delhi has today become a model for other Indian cities battling extreme levels of air pollution — seven of the world’s 10 most polluted cities are in India — in showing that with a clear and bold plan of action, it is possible to reduce pollution. But it is imperative to carry people along.
But we are not satisfied with just a 25% reduction. There is a long way to traverse, and we need to persist till we can guarantee clean air to our citizens 365 days a year as a human right.
To ensure this, I joined city leaders of 35 global cities at the C40 Copenhagen Summit in signing the Clean Air Cities Declaration. Cities across the world are battling similar issues and there is a lot that we can learn from each other. London has been a pioneer in introducing low-emission transport zones, Shenzen is leading the charge on clean public transport by transitioning to a 100% electric bus fleet. And Copenhagen has shown how to mainstream biking as a preferred mode of urban transport.
As part of Delhi’s Clean Air Declaration, we have made a commitment to undertake a large-scale expansion in public transport by doubling our city bus fleet, inducting at least 1,000 fully electric buses, and encouraging the adoption of e-vehicles. We have also committed to greenscaping over 500 kilometre of our roads and undertaking mechanised sweeping at a fixed frequency to drastically reduce dust pollution.
It was said earlier that issues like education and healthcare cannot dominate Indian politics. The Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi has shown that this tired, old narrative can be changed.
Similarly, based on how the people of Delhi have supported all our efforts to reduce pollution in the last five years, I can confidently say that good environmental policies also make good politics.