November 17, 2017   
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Pollution Catastrophe

REGIONAL, THINK BEYOND DELHI

By Shivaji Sarkar

Each time Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR) suffers smoggy conditions, the courts, National Green Tribunal and now the Environmental Pollution Control Authority (EPCA), come up with impractical ideas to punish citizens.

It also overlooks the fact that Delhi’s weather is impacted by its neighbourhood – Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal and even Pakistan. Industries or agriculture there cause problems for Delhi. Penalising farmers for burning stubbles is most impractical. The farmers are in distress and there is no cheaper solution to burning of paddy residues. A government that does it would face severe political implications.

It has also been forgotten that industries around Delhi have been growing since 1980s. It’s the highest concentrated industrial and populated area that went on increasing with competitive politics among the neighbouring States. Fog in Delhi started in mid-1980s. It became smog later.

The idea of increasing parking charge has robbed the citizens to benefit parking mafia. Now quadrupling it to Rs 400 a day helps none but the mafia again. Previous studies have found that vehicular traffic contributes not more than two per cent of carbon emission. Besides, one pays hefty parking fee at the time of purchase of vehicles. It is not counted while suggesting such irrational charges. After such hefty fee, parking ought to be free in Delhi. Every problem should not be a way to dump penalties on citizens, who are not at fault.

Then there was the EPCA suggestion for reducing metro fares which went unheard. The Odd-Even II in April 2016 had miserably failed. Despite that once again Delhi has to suffer it. It has not succeeded anywhere in the world.

While the agencies focus on Delhi they forget about Ferozabad and Moradabad, which have ten times higher particulate matter than Delhi. Who cares for such remote places! It would not help them be in the eyes of media blitzkrieg.

Likewise, the NGT order of banning 15-year-old petrol vehicles and 10-year-old diesel vehicles is another quixotic idea. Such steps are not taken even in the most affluent and advanced countries. There they do not mind driving even a 40-year-old vehicle. Such thoughtless decision helps the car manufacturers – a process that is not less environmentally pollutant – rake in profit.

But the agencies forget that dumping of usable vehicles of any age creates problems adding to severe pollution and ruins what in India is known as the recycling industry. It robs lakhs of their jobs and prevents wealth formation.  This apart such EPCA or NGT quixotic rules lead to rent seeking by the police and transport authorities. It irks the citizens – disorganisd voters, and builds up wrath against the system.

It is just the opposite what the UK has done in September 2017. It has set a 40-year-mark and allowed vehicles older than 40 years to skip an annual test costing pound 54.85 to check if they are roadworthy. It saves the UK of enormous dumping space and environmental pollution. Additionally, it adds to the wealth of the citizens.

The fledgling Indian economy cannot withstand quixotic decisions. Petrol, diesel, battery or any other fuel is equally pollutant. But till such time a viable transport system is available, there is no reason to disrupt the nation.

Interestingly, this time the agencies have found out that vehicles raise dusts. The reality is this nation builds bad roads that are uneven, full of potholes, no method for cleaning and worse footpaths. Each of these adds to the dust. Swachha Bharat without properly maintained roads is not possible. The Supreme Court order on vacuuming and repairing of roads is hardly followed. The three Delhi municipal bodies have only 19 sweeping machines!

It is true that the number of private cars is steadily rising. But who is responsible? The citizens have to move out. The public transport system is awful and expensive. The metro travel costs have increased with October increase to around Rs 200 or more a day, including the last mile. A car costs almost the same for an average 40 km travel. In New York, the subway metro charges remain highly affordable for decades.

It is a governance failure. In fact, Delhi authorities have not been able to obtain new buses since 2009-10 and operate less than half the buses. The Ola/Uber taxis have moody fares and not easily affordable with their surge prices. Everybody thinks in terms of the rich. What would the poor do? The odd-even makes their buses overcrowded and they cannot travel by expensive metro. The additional parking fee burdens their two-wheelers too.

Delhi has to reduce parking charges. Owning a car is a compulsion and not an indication of being rich. For a work or job everyone has to travel.

Kolkata, Chennai or Mumbai too have pollution. Thoughtfully they did not resort to thoughtless Delhi solutions. Commuting remains affordable in these cities. Delhi has not learnt from them. It is the problem of the nation’s large cities. It needs practical approach. But mostly the solutions are mooted in a way that it benefits one or the other organised mafia. While the nation bothers for Delhi, it forgets the dust, degradation and health problems that cement industries in hilly regions of Himachal create.

So pollution is not just the problem of large cities. Away from prying eyes, various States are taking steps without caring for pollution. Solutions can neither be piecemeal nor quixotic. This time the sheet of smog is spread far and wide from UP to Pakistan. Air pollution during winter months has become a large problem of northern Indian sub-continent. How would Delhi-specific steps clean the region? Farm practices in Pakistan are not different. 

India is an aspiring super power. It needs to call for a regional solution. Myopic ways of concentrating in Delhi will not solve it. The steps suggested by authorities are half-baked and have implications on economy. It should be avoided.

The nation needs concrete measures to tackle the severe air pollution. It has to think beyond Delhi, vehicles and punitive measures that lead to rent seeking. Let organisations such as NGT or EPCA be manned by professionals. For clearing the air these should not throw spanners or make India an unpredictable market but concentrate on comprehensive regional studies. The aim should be to help growth and not stall it with high costs and knee-jerk reactions. —INFA

(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)