By Sanjay Kaul
The decision of the Delhi government to put into action the controversial traffic plan that allows only odd numbered cars on the road on odd number dates and even on even is, well, odd even by its own crazy standards.
The urge to do something, anything, when pushed into a corner is a tactic to mimic control. It is also therapeutic. It beats the stress, diverts attention, redirects energies and provides a benign if faux satisfaction of working towards fixing it. In somewhat similar technique, the AAP government in Delhi, short on anything long-term and hamstrung by habit, pushed through a controversial traffic plan that is now starting to test everyone's commitment to pollution, or patience, depending on which side of the equation they stand.
Pollution in Delhi has been a sticking point with a number of governments and the city has seen some activism on it last when the Supreme Court intervened and imposed the for public transportation to run on CNG in 2001. Things have not had any reason to improve since then and the number of vehicles on the roads of Delhi have only increased. Although the capital has no industry within its borders its air quality is classified as next to perhaps Beijing in toxicity.
In the absence of any intensive, polluting industry within its borders it is assumed that the vagaries of weather, wind and dust spice up the Delhi air with diabolical SPM and noxious content. With reason, experts question the sense in removing cars that adhere to better emission technology from roads while letting bigger polluters like scooters continue. In the same vein, arguments about what really constitutes and causes Delhi's pollution have come unstuck and a bouquet of factors are being named in a new fusillade of reasons why the situation persists.
Three seminal incidents, it is purported, triggered the recent traffic experiment. One is the media's pyrotechnics every time a report on Delhi's air is released - a spate of stories that seem to indicate the every kid in Delhi is suffering from some sort of respiratory disease or attack. Then, the unusual confluence of a Chief Justice's plaint about his grand kids having to don masks and a prominent lawyer in the city making a similar point. In fact a Firstpost story on 5 October, 2015 begins: "The Chief Justice of India and a senior lawyer on Monday observed that they and their kin had fallen victims to the "alarming" levels of air pollution in Delhi and favoured wide coverage of the discourse on the matter in the Supreme Court."
Finally, an eminent doctor of the city who runs a chain of pricey hospitals issued a comparative picture of the lungs of a person living in Delhi vis-a-vis a person living in the hills to press the pedal on the issue. To the party, were then joined a number of well meaning experts, NGOs, advocacy types both national and international, who belted out scores of suggestions on combating the menace.
Taking advantage of the chaos, the AAP government, not used to expending time or grey matter thinking through issues, chose to sanction this whimsical idea employed in some cities in the world where it never survived more than a fortnight. The logic was elegantly warped. By any reckoning the scooter owning public is closer to the bus user category and any experiment in trying to move people on to public transport should have logically begun with them. But the car owner was clearly an easier capitalist mascot to target. This was typical. Ever since the AAP government came to power in a stunning reduction of its opponents, it has frayed rather than soothed nerves, not the least because of the compulsive abrasiveness of the CM. In the temperamental display of his actions, speech and reactions lies the microcosm of the party line. Tilting at windmills with a frequency and aplomb that could put Don Quixote to shame, this motley group of people who have been given the keys of the city have reduced it to a crucible of cardinal mistakes.
A sane analysis of the situation will inform anyone of a reasonable temper that a combinative therapy that attacks the hydra of causes rather than a pointed attack on one aspect of it, is the more viable solution to Delhi's pollution. For instance, if the idea is to shift people to public transport on CNG, why does the government not simply subsidize CNG kits. Literally overnight 20% of the car owning public will revert to the more friendly fuel.
Similarly, why is there no outreach to companies that make hybrid cars. Simple trick is to remove all taxes on such cars for the next two years, and watch. To counter the trend of personal vehicle buying, re-invest in the moribund bus system. Give bus operators the land they need for bus terminals. And get Delhi some buses, for god's sake, to fix that yawning deficit between the 11000 the city needs and the 5500 it has.
Jack up car registration fee and link it to technology. That will make polluters pay, car companies rejig their offerings and reorient public perceptions. To avoid people simply buying their cars from neighbour states, raise the toll taxes to achieve parity. Don't depend overly on the Metro - it is already bursting at the seams. Plan parallel systems of commute. Instead of BRT corridors within the city, run them between suburbs and the city centre. That would take away another 20% of the floating population of vehicles in the city.
Typically, there was no discourse on any of the steps that could have really worked to scale pollution down in real sustainable terms. The average citizen, weighed down by the guilt of his own enterprise, succumbed to the general sense of criminality in working his butt off to buy a car. If it was ironical that the behaviour of people faced with a fine of Rs 2000 was construed to be a voluntary endorsement of the plan, it was tragicomical to note that an online survey summed up this Quixotic experiment succinctly: 58% of those surveyed said they were satisfied with the scheme and would not like it to be extended.
@sanjay_kaul is a civil rights activist and a BJP member. Views expressed here are personal.