As has become an annual tradition, the weather in Delhi is once again trying to smoke out good health from its residents. In fact, this smog is now the harbinger of the onset of winter in Delhi and other cities on the Gangetic plain. An addition to the winter tradition of extricating mothballed woollies is the donning of pollution masks.
What keeps everyone warm in these early days of winter are the heated discussions and excuses for this annual event and suggestions on how to cope with it, if not reduce it in the near term.
A Bit of History
Though air pollution is a year-long feature, it gets severe in winter for various reasons that include crop burning, cold air creating a blanket preventing particulate matter from dispersing, and so on.
However, though crop burning is a factor, it is not a new event. What was once upon a time just a few sources of pollution have today increased manifold.
The discussion and even attempts to prevent air pollution in Delhi have led to the banning of old vehicles, the conversion of public transport to CNG, the shifting of industries, the shutting down of coal-fired power plants, the restriction on construction activities, the experiments with odd-even number plates, and car free days.
What these attempts acknowledge are the growing sources of air pollution that Delhi has to face.
It is not only the smorgasbord of avenues of pollution that has increased, the number of polluters within each type has also increased manifold.
- According to Delhi Police, 4,62,255 vehicles were registered in 2016
- Reports point out that there were 1,05,67,712 registered vehicles in Delhi till May 25 this year
- There are 31,72,842 registered cars in the city
- A North Delhi Municipal Corporation official is reported stating that in 2005, 600 building plans were sanctioned, while in 2016 the three municipalities looking after Delhi collectively sanctioned 3,600 plans. Of course, these do not include illegal constructions
If there was an example to explain ‘apne hei pairon pe kulhadi’ then this self-made predicament of Delhiites would be it.
But, Delhiites are a hardy, resilient, and persistent lot which the organisers of the Airtel Half Marathon are, I am sure, grateful for. On a TV discussion, I heard one participant (a well-known marathoner) argue that one has to continue jogging no matter how polluted the air is, because doctors advice exercise for a healthy life.
These arguments are so ludicrous that they almost sound sensible. It takes a lot of gumption to say such a thing on national TV. But, there is a lot to lose if the marathon is not held. So, it is not surprising that the organisers have been thoughtful enough to suggest that participants wear pollution masks on the big day.
Making the best of a bad thing is nothing new. There was a time when white-good manufacturers would advertise their air cleaners for homes to deal with the pollution outside.
The hardiness and persistence that was mentioned earlier is actually a business-as-usual-attitude which inhibits preventive action. One of the reasons why the very basic bus rapid transit system (BRTS) failed in Delhi was because car owners were demanding they be allowed to drive in the BRTS lanes. This was coupled with lack of proper communication and the well known habit of all Indians - not following traffic signals.
The only way to reduce pollution is to rein in the number of sources. But, that would go against the very ethos of a culture that needs to display wealth and success.
No Going There
In a society where keeping up with the Sharmas is the mantra, there needs to be a way to minimise the occasion or make it very expensive. Simultaneously there is need to provide affordable, safe and efficient public transport.
Singapore has got it right in this aspect. It has been proved to be cheaper to use Uber or a taxi service than to own a car in Singapore. A car is taxed almost 100% of its value thus a Volkswagon Golf costs US $90,000 in Singapore and only US $20,000 in the US. Thus only 15% of Singaporeans own a car.
London has made parking very expensive, which the Delhi government has also recently done. The city also has an odd-even scheme. What this does is it creates a negative incentive for car usage, generates money for the city and also creates a public transport usage habit.
To assume that odd-even will reduce pollution given the number of its sources is myopic. The implementation of odd-even and higher parking fees is an attempt at social engineering. Thus it needs to begin now and should become a way of life instead of it being used off-hand as a ill-conceived way to reduce pollution in the near term.
The first step to finding a solution is to desist from looking at short term measures which are ineffectual. Pollution is not something that can be reduced immediately with a snap of ones fingers. We need to be in this for the long haul, there is need for a change in mindset.
Lets start with vehicle manufacturers, do they need to wait till 2020 to implement Bharat Stage VI? Can they do better than Bharat Stage VI? Can governments ensure that roads are paved and traffic lights are synchonised? Can public transport be made more efficient and comfortable? Can we improve the job opportunities in villages and ensure farming gets the monetary value it richly deserves?
Can the government communicate to people that they need to start thinking of the future - not the distant but the immediate. I am not suggesting the Centre create a mindset similar to the one that serves patriotism and diets in monochrome.
In the end we need to move away from voyeuristic and conspicuous consumption. An advertisement campaign that communicates that arrival by bus is far more respectable than by car would be a beginning.
(Samir Nazareth is the author of 1400 Bananas, 76 Towns & 1 Million People. He tweets at @samirwrites.)
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