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Former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit died on Saturday, 20 July, at the age of 81. (File photo: HT)
Former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit died on Saturday, 20 July, at the age of 81. (File photo: HT)

Opinion | How Sheila Dikshit rolled out the world’s biggest clean air project

Dikshit’s biggest contribution to Delhi—the one by which her successors are and will forever be judged—was in rolling out what is arguably the biggest government-sponsored green movement in history

Long before Boris Johnson became the UK’s prime minister, he was mayor of London, sucked into serial controversies involving his political nemesis and predecessor, the socialist ‘Red’ Ken Livingstone. Among those who sprang to his defence at the time was dad Stanley, who cited his son’s exhaustive knowledge of classical Greece, Greek and Latin to declare Boris was eminently suited to run London because he knew his ancient city-states.

Former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit, who died on Saturday, 20 July, at the age of 81, would have known about the proud history of the Indian capital, also a city-state that probably has a considerably older history than that of Athens (508 BC-86 BC). The first of the seven cities of Delhi was Indraprastha, reportedly among the major cities of the Kuru Kingdom (1200 BC-900 BC), the first recorded state-level society in the Indian subcontinent.

There was probably even some mutual recognition between Johnson’s ancient Greece and Dikshit’s beloved Delhi: Indraprastha may well have been known to the ancient Greek scholar Ptolemy, as Indabara, which finds a mention in his Geography. It fell upon Dikshit to modernize this ancient city in several respects, the most important of which was public transportation.

Dikshit’s biggest contribution to Delhi—the one by which her successors are and will forever be judged—was in rolling out what is arguably the biggest government-sponsored green movement in history. It was to take the combative and powerful transporters of the city of Delhi by the scruff of their necks and drag them kicking, screaming and sulking into the 21st century, environmentally speaking.

Before Dikshit became chief minister for the first of three successive terms in 1998, Delhi was a city wrapped in a haze. Its mornings looked like dusk, the air smelt and felt foul. Visitors to the city would find themselves losing their voices and tears streamed down on bad days. It was, said one regular Europe-based visitor, like a slap across your face the moment you stepped off the plane.

Much of the air pollution was caused by public and private transporters—mainly buses, taxis and autorickshaws (tuk-tuks)—that ran on diesel and unleaded petrol, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, powered by unserviced engines so that getting stuck anywhere close to these vehicles on Delhi’s packed roads meant having to breath in tonnes of black noxious fumes spewed out by their rusty exhausts. Shutting the car windows, Delhiites knew, offered no respite whereas travelling in autorickshaws was a bit like zipping across Carbon Town in an open coffin.

Into this toxic atmosphere waded in the Supreme Court five months before Dikshit was elected chief minister, ordering in July 1998 (in response to a petition by environmentalist M.C. Mehta) that all buses in the city must run on compressed natural gas (CNG) by the end of March 2001 and that by April 2000, no buses more than eight years old should be allowed on the streets of Delhi unless they ran on CNG, too.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government that preceded Dikshit’s Congress administration did nothing. Not only did it do nothing, but bizarrely, according to Dikshit’s autobiography, Citizen Delhi: My Times, My Life, it actually placed orders for more than 1,000 diesel buses in its last days in power. One of Dikshit’s first executive orders was to cancel these orders.

The task of cleaning up the polluted city air was mammoth (and it remains a work in progress, to be fair to her successor Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party, or AAP). There was firstly the work of building an entirely new ecosystem for clean fuel in terms of infrastructure. Petrol stations had to be equipped with CNG pumps. Existing vehicles had to be retro-fitted with CNG kits without disrupting public transportation.

“It did not help that nowhere in the world had any city attempted a transformation like this almost overnight. There were no reference points before us, no experiments for us to learn from."

There wasn’t a precedent for another reason—Delhi is a peculiar city-state (it became a ‘state’ in 1992, but is really a Union territory), whose government is dependent on a number of diverse, often antagonistic, political and administrative authorities for day-to-day affairs. The chief among these is the Central government, which was led by the BJP then as it is now. But it was headed by a moderate and statesmanly BJP veteran, prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, which meant that a civility and cordiality marked relations between states and the Centre, as is only to be expected by voters.

Unlike now, when the AAP government of Delhi and the BJP government at the Centre are frequently at each other’s throats over many important matters of governance and delivery, Dikshit, writing her autobiography in 2018, was able to report a measure of cooperation. When she approached Union minister for petroleum and natural gas Ram Naik, he offered to get Delhi CNG all the way from Gujarat through a 1,200-km pipeline. “In fact, Mr Naik gave an assurance that CNG fuel would be made available to Delhi by March 2001," the deadline set by the apex court.

(Closer to the deadline, however, Naik admitted to problems with ensuring an abundant supply of CNG for Delhi and, said Dikshit, “we were caught in a cleft stick".)

Other challenges were analysed, confronted and overcome through a combination of expert advice, and sheer grit in the face of opposition from public transporters, who had the power to blackmail a city into submission but were stood down by a determined Dikshit. Thousands of vehicles were fitted with CNG kits, and orders were placed with Ashok Leyland and Tata Motors for many new CNG buses. The Supreme Court praised the Dikshit government while describing the Central government response as “baffling, to the say the least".

“Despite all the hiccups, by the end of 2002, we could claim that we had made a beginning in providing the cleanest public transportation system in the world."

In 2002, Dikshit also inaugurated the Delhi Metro rail system, the most advanced in India, turning a hidebound and dirty capital into a habitable, welcoming and prosperous city-state.

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

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