It is easy to take credit for success but not ownership for the problem. It is even easier if a small whiff of success allows you to wish away the problem altogether. Not more determined to solve it. The Assembly polls are only a fortnight away in Delhi. All political parties have pitched their battle cry to a crescendo. But there is not even a whisper on future action on air pollution. The political perception is that air pollution is under control. Illogical but true -- some action can breed more inaction!
A sense of complacency wraps the city. The air is cleaner. The city has already done so much! And sure it has, and in record time. The city boasts of the largest-ever CNG bus programme in the world, was the first to introduce Euro II standards, low sulphur fuels (500 ppm), and one per cent benzene petrol in the country, the first to get rid of 15-year-old commercial vehicles, capped the number of three-wheelers, etc. So goes the impressive tally on the report card. Officials report a 26 per cent drop in particulate pollution from 1996. People say that with the smog clearing, they can now see stars at night.
Officials do not warn that pollution levels, though stable for a while, are rising again. The election winter can choke the city. Political parties fighting to take credit for cleaner air nevertheless have no new plans to make the air cleaner. Air pollution doesn't even figure in poll promises which otherwise come cheap.
Yet the pre-poll debates show that the electorate has matured enough for the political parties to see merit in discussing clean air issues. With different political parties ruling the states and at the Centre, the brawl over cleaner air has become more acrimonious. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gibes that the ruling Congress party in Delhi cannot boast of cleaning up Delhi’s air. Union Labour Minister Sahib Singh Varma even holds publicly that "the credit for running the city’s entire transport fleet on environment-friendly CNG should go to the Union Petroleum Minister Ram Naik". Amusing. Counters Delhi’s Congress Chief Minister Sheila
Dikshit, "When other cities of the world were hesitant in converting their entire transport fleet to CNG, we did it. And the difference in the quality of air we breathe is clearly visible."
Yet, no one is willing to make commitments for the future. The aspiring candidates sit cockeyed on the smoke belching vehicles they ride to attend rallies. Smile glibly when their rallies bring the already-crawling traffic to a complete halt. Look away as idling smoke snuffs out life years from those exposed. In the process they are wishing away one of the most serious problems facing the city: Crippling congestion and higher intensity of pollution from crammed vehicles. Sheer numbers swamp very small steps taken so far to make new vehicle and fuels cleaner.
Amnesia hits. They forget that the Supreme Court had to step in a few months ago to demand an action plan to reduce congestion in Delhi. Yet they refuse to consider the issue even though transport is under the direct control of state governments. The spurt in numbers of personal vehicles is phenomenal -- 4 million already. Officials count as many as 164 passenger car registrations daily, as opposed to 117 two-wheelers. These vehicles occupy most of the road space and meet a very small share of the travel demand. Two-wheelers, though 65 per cent of the fleet, meet only 17.6 percent of travel demand. So is the trend with cars. The road network has increased three times since 1971 but vehicles a staggering 16 times. Wrong policies and hostile traffic are edging out bicycles. The result is a mad scramble for road space and choking pollution.
It is so easy and cheap to own and run a personal vehicle in Delhi. Consistent budgetary sops to car manufacturers over the last two years, easy and cheap vehicle financing, and pittance of a tax on personal vehicles makes public transport seem extravagantly costly.
By not making car owners pay as much as a bus, they are tacitly subsiding personal transport and losing potential revenues. A bus in Delhi pays an annual road tax which is much higher than the one-time road tax that a personal car pays at the time of purchase. A city service bus pays Rs 14,235 per year (adding up to more than Rs 0.21 million over a 15 year period) as against the lifetime tax of only Rs 4,880 on a medium-sized passenger car. Cars release more emissions per passenger as compared to a bus, and occupy more road space. Yet car users are taxed a pittance. Our politicians penalise public transport.
Politicians naturally don’t have guts to talk taxes during elections. We need an entirely new political mindset and a public approach that will allow correction in our warped policies.
So far, we've heard only small talk on transport issues. The Delhi government announced a transport plan in September 2002. This promised rationalisation of bus routes, bus lanes for selected corridors, introduction of premium bus services, timetable integration of bus, Metro and parking facilities. The medium and long-term plans include high capacity bus system on selected corridors, electric trolley buses, and feeder bus routes for the Metro, and so on. But there has been very little progress since.
It is time our politicians drew up yet another Clean Air Pledge, similar to the one we had persuaded prospective candidates to sign during the 1998 Assembly elections. Candidates who had signed, including the present Delhi Chief Minister, were flashed in a public advertisement funded by the citizens of Delhi on election eve. The tumult that followed made media rank air pollution as a key election issue.
Even this time around, air pollution remains an election issue. But politicians are looking back to take credit, and not forward to act.
Delhi needs a much more ambitious plan to leapfrog in technology and to manage its mobility -- possible only with political foresight. Allow only the cleanest vehicles and still cap their usage to lessen the enormous health burden from toxic air.
We demand from our politicians a new pledge, this time for second-generation measures. The success of the past years should convince them that hard decisions in the interest of public health will get them stronger public support. Let them prove it once to us that city governance has come of age and can deliver even without a stick from the Court.
-- Anumita Roychowdhury
Right To Clean Air Campaign