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Delhi air pollution: A hara-kiri in waiting!




                                                                                                                                        Times of India, New Delhi, 9 April, 2015

Bholenath Vishwakarma

Air pollution level of Delhi has been in news for some time now. Over the year New York Times published two reports about Delhi being Wolds's most polluted city. Recently an Indian newspaper published an article in which leading doctors of Delhi are advising their patients suffering from respiratory diseases to leave the city since the number of such patients has been increasing at alarming rate for the last few years.


What is more baffling is that along with being most polluted city in the world, Delhi is also one of the greenest cities. How does one explain these two contradictory features of an open expanding city like Delhi?


There are three reasons for the air pollution in Delhi and the general mess in India when it comes to urban transport planning and management. First is the number of vehicles along with the fuel and the emission standards. Second is the administrative shortcomings and behaviour of the motorists and third is the philosophical one.


If we compare Delhi City with Mumbai, London and New York City (NYC) we can understand why Delhi holds a unique place. Also Delhi is a land locked city and lacks the advantage of coastal cities like Mumbai, London and NYC when it comes to dispersion of pollutants. The sea wind help disperse the pollution when the warm air over the land moves up and cold wind over the sea surface moves in.

Let us first compare the number of registered vehicle, population, and the area of Delhi city with Mumbai, London, and NYC. The figures are startling in every way. Delhi fares worst among all four cities when it comes to the number of registered vehicles. Delhi's 11 million people living in 1,484sqkm area have 8.43 million registered vehicles while Mumbai has only 23.3 million vehicles among its 12.5 million populations living in mere 603sqkm area. Delhi has almost four times vehicles despite having 1.7 million less population and double area!















When we compare the Indian cities to the western cities it becomes clear why our cities are more polluted. London and NYC with roughly the same population — 8.3 and 8.5 million respectively, (approximately 30% than Mumbai and Delhi) have just 2.6 and 2.1 million registered vehicles respectively. This is just 10% compared to Mumbai and merely 0.25 per cent compared to Delhi. Also the areas of these two cities are nearly same as Delhi with 1,572sqkm of London and 1,214sqkm of New York City. Even Beijing City (16,801sqkm area) to which Delhi is often compared has only 5 million registered vehicles among its 11.5 million residents.


The reason for such less number of vehicles in London and NYC is not only the deeper reach of their public transport in use for long time but also because of the reasons like congestion charges during peak hours, strong implementation of traffic regulations, and high parking cost.


The number of vehicles has compound effect on air pollution when we take the usage of kind of fuel and emission standards in to account. Due to subsidy on diesel there has been increase in use of diesel vehicle in India that emits soot along with NOX, SO2, and CO2 that petrol vehicles emit. India follows Euro 3 and 4 (Bharat 3 and 4) standards which are very lenient compared to the US standards, especially towards diesel vehicles. Euro 3 allows diesels to emit 16 times as much NOx as the US EPA does.


Second reason for this level of air pollution is something we are so inured to that it is overlooked by public and the civic agencies alike. In places like London and NYC or even Chandigarh the traffic on the road is only because of more numbers of cars on the road; while it is not the same in India. Traffic in India is caused by poor traffic management and zero civic sense of the drivers. Why Delhi does have massive traffic congestion despite having largest ratio of road to the built up area in addition to signal free intersections and flyovers? The reason is that the moment one passes through habitable area like markets one finds that the shop owners have taken the footpath and people walk on road, bus takes half the road when it stops because bus stands are taken over by auto-rickshaw. All these minor inconsistencies forces vehicles to run at slow speed at which the emission is at peak. Almost 20 -30% of the time all the vehicles on the road run at less than 30 kilometres per hours or are idling for as much time. Also, all kind of vehicles run amok in all lanes of all the roads. Duration and length of traffic jam increases because rather than staying in their lane people move to the opposite lane. And many such behavioural exacerbate the problem.


Third reason is rather philosophical one. Indians learn big ideas like democracy, finance, freedom and even transportation as one acquires a skill. Just as a layman acquires driving skill without knowing anything about automobile, we learn big ideas superficially, copying what is practiced seriously in the West. We make road and put the signal and that's it. At the periphery of the road there is nothing — no pavement, no demarcation. Suddenly a world of bazaar will pop up beside the road affecting the traffic. While every inch of an urban area is continuously monitored and is fully in control of the civic agencies in the West, our civic agencies have a very cavalier approach to their domain and responsibilities. In America traffic cop is the most feared person on the road because of the tough traffic penalties.


Delhi needs to promote private parking businesses. It also needs to charge premium even for parking outside ones house if it is a metalled municipality road.


Many other aspects of urban transport planning are required to not only reduce the air pollution but also to reduce the distress of motorists and other stakeholders involved.