Curbing Delhi pollution

The Delhi Government has taken a tough decision to allow cars to ply on Delhi roads only on alternate days to curb air pollution that has reached alarming levels. While the political parties in the opposition have not directly opposed the scheme, nobody has given unconditional support, as this has the potential of making the Kejriwal government highly unpopular among the middle class. Kejriwal has also sensed this and as a result has announced that this is a temporary measure to keep ways open to roll back the scheme. While there have been concerns expressed that this will be impossible to implement and that it will cause tremendous hardship to people there has been little comment on whether it will lead to substantial reduction in air pollution.

Will it work?

As far as pollution in a particular area is concerned it has its own dynamics. There have been efforts to understand the sources of pollutants in Delhi's air, but it is still far from complete. Moreover, it has both stock and flow elements. The flow of pollutants from different sources also need not be constant. The air pollution suddenly goes up in October, not because the flow of pollutants from sources like vehicles, industries and construction activities goes up drastically. But it is largely due to paddy straw burning in the neighbouring states. Lack of rainfall and air movement also plays their roles. Another aspect of air pollution is that vehicles and activities like sweeping of roads also make dust suspended that might have otherwise been settled. Hence, it is quite clear that the new scheme, even if implemented well will have little impact on the level of pollution. The new congestion tax imposed on commercial vehicles coming from outside Delhi has reported to have reduced their entry by about 30 per cent but it has hardly impacted the air quality.

There are several other factors that will lessen its impacts. Many families in Delhi have multiple cars and they do not use all of them together. Hence some families will find no problems as they might have both odd and even numbered cars. If such scheme is continued, some families even go for a second car. It is also likely that cars that are allowed on a particular day will run more in the new arrangement than it would have run otherwise. Another factor is that how those who will be forced to shun their vehicles on alternate days will respond. Will they shift towards mass public transport like buses or metro, or will hire taxis or autos? If the option is the latter, then it will hardly make a difference as taxis and autos will run more to offset the benefit of private vehicles not being on the roads. In Kolkata, there are fewer private vehicles but there are large number of taxis and autos, and the city is not far behind in pollution.

Improving Public Transport

Now the question is if Delhi will be able to cope up with the new arrangement. Again we do not have complete understanding about the role of public transport and private vehicles in overall transport system. However, it does not require much research to understand that public transport in Delhi is grossly inadequate. This is bad not only from environmental perspective but also from equity perspective. Poor people cannot afford expensive private transport and need public transport the most. For example, many poor people are using bikes as "family car" and paying huge prices in terms of accidents, injuries and deaths. However, this has been neglected for decades.

Delhi public transport suffers not only from overall inadequacy but also from bad (or lack of) planning. Delhi is well connected with other cities and towns both near and distant but it does not have a suburban train system like Mumbai or Kolkata. Delhi has far more potential in this regard, even better than Mumbai and Kolkata. Of course some routes like Delhi-Faridabad and Delhi-Ghaziabad are overburdened, but some routes like Delhi-Gurgaon and Delhi-Bahadurgarh are underutilised. Even the busy routes can be brought under intensive suburban train system with some investment in infrastructure. Delhi has a circular railway but people are not even aware of its existence. It runs only a few trains and it never planned to improve the services due to poor ridership. Poor ridership is due to stations being poorly planned and ill-maintained. They are neither easily accessible nor integrated with other modes of public transport. The railways also defies the logic that in intra-city transport where there are other options, people will not use a mode if the frequency of service is not high enough.

The emergence of Delhi Metro has been lauded by many but it is also a victim of poor planning, and a as result it is now functioning more as a suburban train system. If you look at the metro map of cities like London and Paris, it looks like a dense net covering the city and hence one can travel from one part of the city to any other part in most cases without using any other so-called last-mile connectivity. They do not connect neighbouring cities but their metros are well integrated with the suburban train system. In case of Delhi, instead of providing a dense network within Delhi, the focus has been on connecting the neighbouring cities and as a result Delhi metro is no good for intra-city travel. In several stretches, it runs parallel to the existing railway network and hence duplicating infrastructure. Delhi metro has also ignored the issue of integrating with suburban and circular railway network or bus network. To give an example, the Safdarjung Bus Terminal is located at the junction of a metro line and the circular railway but none of them is integrated to each other.

Other Measures

Apart from managing the pollution issue, inter-state coordination will be required for transport planning as well. There is no logic why vehicles from Ghaziabad bound for Faridabad and Gurgaon should enter Delhi, but the FNG (Faridabad-Noida-Ghaziabad) corridor had to be aborted due to lack of inter-state understanding.

Another way to improve the situation is to encourage people to live closer to their places of work. But the property and rent markets in Delhi discourage this. House owners will harass and the tenants will be forced to vacate every eleventh months, each time paying hefty commission to property dealers. In many cases, house owners will not give receipts and tenants will not be able to enjoy tax rebates. Houses are poorly maintained and tenants will avoid any investment as the tenure is short. Thus people coming from other places go for buying a house even if they have no intention to settle here. In Delhi, it is impossible to buy a property without paying a substantial part in black money forcing people to only to neighbouring cities.

Way Forward

The new arrangement is most likely to fail and we can expect an apology from Mr. Kejriwal. But we must use this opportunity to improve the transport system not only in Delhi but also in the whole region. It must not have a similar fate like the BRT corridor which has been working well in many cities. Some of the upcoming metro lines will improve the situation but still will not be enough. We need better suburban services, services on circular railway and their seamless connectivity with metro and bus services. Several short stretches should be identified for point to point connectivity and services should be provided through e-rickshaw. For this to happen, Delhi Transport Corporation, Delhi Metro, Indian Railways and the relevant authorities in Delhi and neighbouring states have to sit and work together. It should be noted that though pollution in Delhi is receiving much attention, situation is no better in neighbouring cities. More importantly, the city must be made safer for pedestrians and cyclists making and maintaining footpaths and cycle tracks making last-mile connectivity less important particularly in winter months when pollution hits the worst.