We don't smell the air | Centre for Science and Environment


Sunita Narain

Director General of CSE and publisher of Down To Earth, an environmentalist pushing for changes in policies and  practices and mindsets. More>>

We don't smell the air

I smelled the air of Bangalore last week. It was foul. I remembered how in the late 1990s, when Delhi’s air was dark and dirty, we had run an advertisement in the newspapers: “Roll down the window of your bullet-proof car, Mr Prime Minister, the security threat is not the gun it is the air of Delhi.” Since then Delhi introduced compressed natural gas, it increased the number of buses, it got better quality fuel. With all this, the air got less dirty and less toxic. But now with each passing day, the city adds just below 1,000 new private vehicles. With each passing day the gains of clean air are being lost. It is also losing the battle of the bulge: congestion is throttling the city; parking spaces are hard to find and pedestrians can’t walk or cross roads without being run over.

Now Bangalore is similarly afflicted. What we have to consider is why we don’t seem to learn from each other’s mistakes. Why each city has to go into this vortex which sucks and pulls you down. I suspect we don’t learn because we don’t know how to do things differently. We live with the arrogance that we can tame the beast. Alternatively, we don’t care. We don’t roll down our windows. We don’t smell the air.

Bangalore adds more vehicles than Delhi each day—over 1,000. It has less road space than Delhi and more green space. The future the city has is ugly and hopefully not inevitable. The trees will have to make way for the roads and the flyovers that will carry its vehicles. But as the road space expands, as more flyovers get built, the expanding numbers of cars will inevitably fill it up.

The many-lane road that rings London—its orbital—is called the country’s biggest car park because cars have filled it up. Closer home, the multiple flyover-cum-highway that has been inaugurated between Delhi and Gurgoan with the promise of a speedy ride home has already become a nightmare as cars crawl and people run madly to cross the road. We forget completely that stopping traffic at red lights also allows for people to cross. We forget because we don’t walk. We drive.

But then why worry? After all the movers and shakers of Bangalore, will tell you that their city is in transition. These are merely growing pains. Wait, till we have made our buildings higher, our streets broader, our many multi-level automated parking lots, our bridges, highways, tunnels, flyovers. Wait, till we have our city infrastructure in place. Then this problem of pollution and congestion will be a thing of the past. Just wait, don’t worry.

This is an infantile illusion. The fact is that cities in the poorer world—which lack investment to clean up technology or governance to get rid of old technology—have not been able to deal with pollution. Take Beijing where the organisers of the next Olympics have declared that the city’s air is too unhealthy for athletes. But it is not as if Beijing has not taken steps to combat air pollution. The city has removed every kind of vehicle—from two-stoke and four-stoke two-wheelers to the equivalent of our auto-rickshaws—all to make their city swanky clean. But the fact is that also Beijing adds over 1,000 vehicles a day to its roads, the only difference is that in its case all the vehicles are cars, unlike in our world, where cars still jostle for small with two-wheelers. But still pollution makes it choke.

It is also clear that even the rich world, the world we wish to emulate, has only cosmetically dealt with air pollution—and never been able to deal with congestion. New York is now spending us $350 million to implement the mayor’s alternative plan to reduce its horrendous and crippling traffic congestion. What is important is that this plan is not about more roads or flyovers. This plan is primarily about spending money on buying new buses and building a rapid transit system for the city.

But Bangalore (and the rest of us) know, only how to follow, not how to lead. The fact is that today the bulk of our city people travel by bus, by bicycle or walk to work. In Delhi, buses carry roughly 60 per cent of the people. In Bangalore, the rough estimate suggests around 30 per cent of people use its bus service. The city has only 4,000 buses on the road and after much prodding is adding a few more hundreds. It is also building a metro rail, which will definitely help. But remember, till the metro gets operational—the earliest date is 2010—the city would have added over a million vehicles to its already choked roads. And if people get wealthier, or if the cars get cheaper (as our industry is desperately trying to make them) then the vehicles added will be cars, not two-wheelers. This only means that vehicles will take more road space to carry even fewer people and will lead to worse congestion and even worse pollution.

The option today is to build a viable public mass transit system that will replace the car or marginalise it. But this would mean that the city will have to swamp its roads with buses—air-conditioned, with gadgets to track movement and to inform its commuters. This is being tried in Bangalore, but only as an experiment. Clearly, the time has gone for these timid and hesitant steps, which will get swamped by the one truth—the city adds more vehicles than it can afford.

At this moment, let us be clear, Bangalore like all our cities is on one road and it leads straight to hell. But where it ultimately ends is where its people will take it. Its information prowess should teach it that. If nothing else.

— Sunita Narain

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