A large number of groups working in the environment sector have declared the quality of air in Delhi and neighbouring areas as highly precarious. This is an ‘emergency’ and instead of coming from the political quarters, it is a ‘citizens’ emergency’. The citizens’ groups said, “We declare an emergency, we ask schools to at least close junior classes. We ask corporates to give work out of home and stay closed on October 8.” This was last month.
The citizens’ groups have now given a call for a protest on November 6 in front of the Environment Ministry in Delhi at 9.30 a.m. The slogan for the mobilisation is “our children are choking, we have a right to clean air.”
The gravity of the situation can be gauged from the press note issued by the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA), Delhi. The EPCA has referred to the SAFAR (System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research) forecast of very bad ambient air quality in the coming 10 days in Delhi NCR. The EPCA has termed the air quality of Delhi-NCR in the ‘very poor’ category.
The directions of the EPCA which are mandatory in the region, mainly target construction activity, stopping construction and evacuation activities in the region for 10 days. Stone crushers and hot mix plants have also been stopped for this period. Similarly, diesel generator sets in Delhi have also been banned.
Workers to Suffer the Brunt of EPCA Directions?
Whereas it is necessary to control particulate matter in air, the main problem is that the brunt of the decisions taken by the EPCA fall on the poor and the working people without any compensation for the workforce. The brick kilns in the NCR will be closed till November 10 and a similar dictum has been issued to the neighbouring states of Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The industrial area of Mundka will also remain closed for the same period.
The bias of the EPCA is evident from the fact that automobiles, especially the fuel guzzlers commanding the roads - which are the largest contributors of air pollution in the Delhi-NCR, are left out. Instead of taking a firm position against single passenger-driven cars, especially diesel cars, only an advisory has been issued which will hardly be followed.
Now is the time when the odd-even formula should have been implemented. The EPCA must acknowledge the fact that the data very unambiguously reveals that more than 65% of air pollution emanates from the burning of fossil fuels in Delhi-NCR. To counter this, not just public transport needs to be strengthened but lessons must be learnt from cities like Liepzig.
Liepzig is a city in Germany which was instrumental in the paradigm shift in urban transport policies of Germany. The Germans have made the entire system of public transport in the cities free. This is done to ensure that the residents in the cities prefer public transport instead of their private cars in order to reduce air pollution. Of course, there is a mechanism through which the people will pay in a different form to sustain public transport.
Likewise, in Delhi-NCR, tariffs of the Metro train must be halved with special concession for the students. Unfortunately, the Delhi Metro is one of the costliest in the world. Instead of dissuading the people, especially the working people, efforts must be to attract more people to public transport and a reduced price mechanism is one of the ways to ensure that.
The second method that must be followed is through coercion by the state apparatus. Private, single-rider cars must be taxed to act as a deterrent in their usage. Simultaneously, some of the streets must be completely forbidden from motorised transport. Shimla-- a city in the Himalayan foothills-- has a legacy of a large portion of the market that is completely forbidden for cars. The ambient air quality is a stark difference in such zones.
Government Focused on Construction while Cities Choke
In Delhi, according to a study conducted by the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, there are over 2.5 million cyclists who use it as a mode of transport. These are mainly workers in the unorganised sector. The development strategy that needs to be discussed must incorporate this large section. Cycle tracks have been usurped by the upper middle-class’s demand of wider roads and flyovers. The biggest casualty has been the pedestrians and the cyclists.
The paradox of planning and development is vividly evident from the recent statement of the secretary of urban development who was more concerned about ‘ease of doing construction’ at a time when the cities are choking. It is not worrying for the present government at the Centre that out of the 20 most polluted cities of the world, 14 are from India.
The concern of the Central government was exposed when Modi government skipped an important global air pollution meet in Geneva for the unveiling of the Sardar Patel statue while India continues choking. Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan, Health Minister JP Nadda and Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan of the BJP, chose to flag off the “Unity Run” instead of participating in the event organised by the World Health Organisation.
It is in this background that the citizens’ initiative in promulgating “an emergency” must be taken seriously and implemented inversely to tell the government that its slumber will choke the citizens to death.
(The writer was the directly elected Deputy Mayor of Shimla. He is at present working in the All India Urban Forum.)