Given the chronic lack of political will, only citizens can eventually force changes in government policies by adopting saner and healthier lifestyles.
The poisonous smog that has enveloped Delhi and the NCR for days on end seems to have jolted Delhi citizens as well as the Delhi government out of their ‘chalta hai’ attitude, but only temporarily. A modest remedial measure like the reintroduction of the odd-even scheme that imposes partial restrictions on private cars was announced, before being hastily withdrawn in the face of questions raised by the National Green Tribunal.
Last year, vested interests managed to discredit the odd-even scheme by convincing people that it had zero impact on improving air quality during the period it was under experimentation despite the fact that most citizens found it useful and the compliance rate was very high. The negative publicity in the media forced the AAP government not only to withdraw the scheme but also to put the entire issue on the back-burner.
Just the other day, Mexico’s ambassador to India published a lead article in the Indian Express detailing her country’s success in implementing multiple measures, including ‘Hoy No Circula’ (a day without a car), adopted by Mexico City.
The odd-even scheme was not the proverbial magic wand that can solve the problem of air pollution in one stroke. However, it was a significant first step to drive home the message that the government alone cannot handle this serious challenge and that it requires the mass participation of citizens in more ways than one, with each one contributing her or his bit to reducing the carbon footprint.
While maintaining the quality of roads and power supply is largely in the hands of the government, combating environmental pollution has to be a collective resolve of both government and society. The odd-even scheme is a way to make each citizen an active partner and stakeholder in the process of finding solutions to the menace of air pollution. It is meant to make each of us realise that it involves daily discipline and willingness to make necessary sacrifices.
It defies comprehension how people came to the conclusion that the odd-even formula had zero effect on curbing pollution. The reduction in the total number of vehicles meant far less traffic snarls. When cars move at a consistent speed instead of moving at a snail’s pace due to traffic jams, they emit far less fumes and consume less fuel.
If we want clean air, each one of us has to take the responsibility for making important lifestyle changes. This includes switching over to public transport, which will never improve unless the elite groups begin to use it. Their collective pressure will force the government to improve the quality, and enhance the quantity and modes of public transport. Like many others of my class, I too was addicted to using my personal car for daily commutes. But I am grateful to the short-lived odd-even experiment for having forced me to experience the benefits of using public transport.
Thanks to the continuing spread of the metro in Delhi plus the steady growth of quality cab services provided by the likes of Uber and Ola, giving up one’s car is today not only possible but also more convenient and cost-effective than ever. Cab rides may cost less than the salary to be paid to a driver. Besides, using a private car means hefty petrol bills, car servicing and repair charges, parking charges plus the hassle of finding parking space. Driving in choked cities could also means frequent dents and scratches on your vehicle by careless drivers. Then there is the annual car insurance and recurring expense on minor and major repairs. Add to this the lakhs it costs to buy a car. The annual interest one can earn on the amount one spends on a luxury car is enough to pay for taxi bills for the whole year.
While some of my friends and acquaintances went ahead and bought an additional car to evade compliance and sabotage the very intent of the odd-even scheme, I actually postponed indefinitely the idea of replacing my 10-year-old car with a new one. Even after the government discontinued the odd-even scheme, I began avoiding the use of my personal car.
Some argue that using cabs is no different from using personal cars since both are fuel dependent. Firstly, most cabs use CNG, which is less harmful than petrol or diesel. But more importantly, on average, a personal car carries just one or two persons in a day whereas a cab ferries at least 50 persons every day. When we park our cars on roadsides or in parking lots, that space becomes dead for all other purposes for those hours. Today, our cities are choked with parked cars. As a result there is no safe space for pedestrians. By contrast, a cab keeps moving all day carrying dozens of passengers in multiple trips. So it actually frees road space, especially for pedestrians.
If access to radio taxis becomes easier, there is less rationale for owning personal vehicles. The Delhi government had done well to issue a warning to radio taxi services that they cannot arbitrarily raise their rates using rush hour or high demand as excuses. The enhanced use of cabs and autos will also provide much needed job opportunities to the huge army of unemployed in India.
But the government also needs to realise that the odd-even scheme can’t work as a stand-alone measure. The environmental challenge we face demands many more radical measures. These include:
- Much greater investment in high quality and adequate supply of public transport;
- A ban on the manufacture of diesel vehicles;
- Following Mexico’s example in procuring Zero Emission Buses plus commitment to actively promote fossil fuel free motor vehicles;
- Charging a hefty fee for parking cars on public spaces, not just during the day but also at night.
- Using cutting edge technology for garbage recycling, producing wealth out of waste rather than letting mountains of garbage emit noxious fumes apart from the intermittent fires that engulf neighbouring areas endangering survival of poor communities that live near these garbage dumps;
- Controlling industrial emissions with strict monitoring and upgradation of technology. This would include shutting down industries that refuse to invest in controlling noxious fumes and poisonous effluents. We should not allow the palliative of moving hazardous industries out of Delhi. They have no business to exist anywhere;
- Helping farmers in finding cost efficient ways of handling crop residue;
- Finding ways to control dust pollution due to construction activity;
- Mechanising the daily sweeping of roads instead of using brooms to simply move dirt and dust from one place to another;
- Planting more trees, especially those varieties that combat air pollution and respecting the sanctity of green belts and protected forests instead of slyly letting encroachments take place;
- Redesigning roads with dedicated tracks for non-motorised vehicles such as bicycles and cycle rickshaws. These eco-friendly means of transport need to be encouraged. Instead, they are being pushed out through the banning of cycle rickshaw entry into large parts of the city. A large chunk of the working class would gladly go back to cycling to their workplace if our roads provided safe tracks. This would reduce the excessive burden on public transport and save precious money on commutes for the working poor;
- Providing safe sidewalks to enable citizens to do local shopping and run other errands around their neighborhood without needing a motor vehicle. Today walking has become such a high-risk venture due to the absence of clear sidewalks that even for short distance errands people are forced to take out their cars. If we made our cities walking- and cycle-friendly, it would help reduce our dependence on motor vehicles at least for short-distance commutes.
Given the chronic lack of political and administrative will in India, it is we, the citizens, who will eventually need to force changes in government policies by adopting saner and healthier lifestyles. Be it a self-imposed odd-even scheme, planting and protecting trees in our neighbourhoods, or making sure construction takes place in a responsible, non-polluting manner, it is we who must become the change we want to see in India.
Madhu Purnima Kishwar is founder of MANUSHI, a human rights and women’s rights organisation, and is currently Maulana Azad National Professor, ICSSR.