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Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Fighting pollution, the Delhi way

Citizens have shown the will to pursue a plan that involves personal sacrifice; now it is up to policymakers to come up with an honest urban revitalization plan

Delhi never ceases to surprise—both in a good way and bad. But today, we need to acknowledge the good of its denizens, for their exemplary support to the odd-even plan.

When the state government proffered an out-of-the-box solution from 1 January to combat pollution, a significant number of naysayers predicted that it would fail because citizens won’t comply. Critics can say “we told you so", because pollution levels have remained stubbornly high at levels that are injurious to health.

But what they overlooked was the zeal of its citizens. They embraced the challenge like their very own (yes, there were a few violators, but then exceptions only prove the rule). The end result was that vehicular congestion plunged sharply; anecdotally, by about 40%.

For this, citizens of Delhi, you should feel proud. Whenever required, you have never failed to step up to the plate. A year ago, you backed India’s hottest political start-up, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), and gave them a spot on the national high table of politics. Like a colleague points out, this city also served as the ground zero to launch the nationwide anti-corruption movement, which actually spawned AAP, and then inspired a protest that eventually forced a reluctant Union government to undertake an unprecedented rewrite of the nation’s rape laws—after a girl was brutally assaulted, leading to her eventual death.

Once again, at the end of last week, Delhi showed all of us that “yes we can". Now, this is the single biggest takeaway from the odd-even plan for cars, that is set to conclude on Friday. Not only has Delhi (otherwise a hotbed of social anarchy) shown that it is doable, it has inspired the entire nation to debate pollution—we owe it to our next generations, if not us.

Unfortunately, this is not how the scheme is being received. This is largely because of the way AAP has framed the debate. By pegging it to an untested claim that an odd-even car plan alone would curb pollution, it reduced it to a binary debate—an either/or situation. And Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s chief minister, may have overplayed his hand by placing himself in the centre of what should logically have been a people’s campaign—which it was eventually.

Viewing it two-dimensionally assumes that there is one single cause for rising pollution in Delhi. Alas, this is not so. A piece written by a colleague and published in Mint last week succinctly explains the peculiar nature of the pollution problem—varied sources of pollution combining with unpredictable meteorological conditions and the city’s topography (resembling a saucer) which in the absence of a strong breeze makes it a receptacle of pollutants.

As the article explains, the key pollutants, which has all of us worried, are tiny particulate matters known as PM 2.5 and PM 10. The former is as big as 2.5 microns and PM 10 is particulate matter that is 10 microns (To understand how tiny these particles are, there are 25,000 microns in one inch). Absorbed in large doses by the body, they can be lethal, if not debilitating to those already vulnerable to respiratory disorders like asthma.

Now, these particulate matter are not only emitted by most vehicles, burning biomass and power plants, but are also found in road dust and construction debris (think how builders are completely rebuilding Delhi). And given its geographical construct, Delhi is very vulnerable to pollution in its neighbourhood too. In short, there is no single cause of pollution.

There is, however, no reason to lose hope or run down the odd-even plan based on pollution metrics. Actually, it can be a starting point to rewrite the urban narrative and serve as a template for the rest of the metros in the country. It is not rocket science: Delhi needs a holistic transport plan that recognizes the political economy of the city.

The existing one—which favours private transport—ignores the majority. A survey by RITES (Rail India Technical and Economic Services) of Delhi in 2008 showed that only 13.92% people used cars. On the other hand, 14.72% used cycles/cycle rickshaws and a staggering 34.67% simply walked—they don’t own any transport, can’t afford public transport and hence simply walk. It also found that 40% of the roads do not have a sidewalk (imagine what a pedestrian is exposed to, besides of course risking life and limb by walking on the road); even the existing sidewalks are inevitably taken over by cars or encroachment by private residences.

It is then clear that Delhi’s citizens have shown the will to pursue a plan that involves personal sacrifice. Now that they are stakeholders in a global good, it is up to our policy planners to come up with an honest urban revitalization plan for Delhi.

Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

Comments are welcome at capitalcalculus@livemint.com.

His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus

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