While India has drastically moved up in the Ease of Doing Business Rankings, it has also simultaneously earned the tag of being amongst the most polluted countries in the world, with National Capital Region (NCR) being the worst-affected. The city is in a state of public health emergency and anyone staying there cannot help but feel being in a severely affected war zone-like situation. Delhi is home to over 16 million people and is currently the worldâ€™s 11th-most polluted city. The levels of PM2.5, tiny particles that can clog peopleâ€™s lungs, have increased by more than 90 times from the level that is considered to be safe by the World Health Organisation (WHO). All that the Delhi administration has done besides shifting blame to surrounding states and fighting on Twitter, is to try to put a band-aid by announcing revival of the Odd-Even scheme, under which vehicles with odd and even registration numbers are barred from the roads on alternate days; the scheme was later pulled out due to differences with the National Green Tribunal (NGT). But are such cosmetic measures enough to contain the toxic smog?
Let us try to take a holistic perspective of the current situation. Air Pollution is a proven case of market-failure and a negative externality where the ill-effects of oneâ€˜s actions are borne by the entire population and hence market fails to control the same by any negative reinforcement. Farmers in Punjab and Haryana have a short window of three weeks to remove the tall stubs left over by combined harvesters before they have to sow the next crop. Burning stubble is the quickest and cheapest mode available and the practice has been going on for many years since paddy was introduced in these states as a second crop. However, it is only recently that the pollution situation has turned so alarming.
Just blaming stubble burning for the whole mess would not yield desired results. Two major reasons which have added to the intensity is the ever-going open construction in NCR, which spews dust particles all around and the poisonous exhaust from diesel-guzzling trucks and other passenger vehicles. Delhi is amongst the most populated cities in the world yet has the poorest emission control standards. While the world has moved on to Euro VI complaint vehicles, we are still struggling to control Euro III vehicles from plying on the roads. The number of registered vehicles in Delhi has increased nearly three times to 7.6 million from 2.2 million in 1994, registering a growth rate of 14 per cent per annum. This includes two-wheelers, which form about two-third of the Motor Vehicles.
Vehicular emissions contribute significantly to human exposure and people living within a 500-metre radius of any road are most exposed to vehicular pollution. This has caused severe health hazards with hospitals in the city reporting a rise in patients suffering from respiratory diseases, of which India has the highest rate in the world with 159 deaths per 1,00,000 people in 2012, according to WHO. According to a 2015 study, half of the cityâ€™s 4.4 million school children had stunted lung development and would never completely recover.
How to tackle the mess we are in? While there has been considerable debate amongst stakeholders, experts and environmental NGOs on the actions needed to be taken, one thing is certain, if emergency measures are not institutionalised, there wouldnâ€™t be much left to stake claim on. Short term ad-hoc measures like Odd-Even scheme can at best be described as attention diversions and feeble attempts to showcase action on the governmentâ€™s part. The Union Government needs to step-in with a detailed and functional action plan to tackle the problem on all fronts.
The issue of crop burning needs to be resolved by bringing all stakeholders together and introducing measures which are acceptable to all. These can include introduction of newer varieties of paddy which mature early, thus providing farmers with more time before the next sowing and renting out of instruments that can work along with combined harvesters and leave a much shorter stubble that does not require burning. Mere banning of stubble burning without providing viable alternatives is never going to work on the ground. Construction standards need to be notched up and all infrastructure projects, whether major or minor, must follow global standards whereby dust and other particles are not thrown around openly but kept within enclosures. Auto manufacturers must be given clear mandate to bring vehicles having globally acceptable emission standards in a time-bound manner and all older vehicles must be tapered off in next few years with strict implementation plans. To enforce car-pooling, a sin-tax must be introduced for second car onwards for a single family unit as followed in many big cities and a congestion charge can also be introduced on lines of London to keep the number of personal vehicles in check.
All these vehicle control measures can be successful only if a strong, clean and reliable public transport system is provided to the population at large. While Delhi Metro has been highly successful in keeping millions of people off roads, what is essentially lacking in NCR is effective last mile connectivity and a dependable fleet of public buses. Delhiâ€™s bus fleet stood at 5,341 in 2013-14 falling by 364 to 4,977 in 2014-15. Against an approved capacity of 5,500 buses, the Delhi Transport Corporation has merely 4,200 odd buses on roads out of which around 500 standard-floor buses will have to be phased out soon leaving it short of around 1,800 buses. The last time the DTC acquired new buses was in 2011-12, when it had purchased 32 low floor buses. In its annual budget, the Delhi government proposed to spend Rs. 3,056 crore for implementation of various schemes, programmes and projects under transport sector. However, the government has not been able to buy any new buses for the last two years. Public transport including bus fleets is declining while there is a constant increase in Delhiâ€™s vehicular population that has clearly outpaced its road capacity.
An efficient urban transportation system is the only way out to discourage people from using private vehicles. Since the government has repeatedly failed to serve the interests of the common man in this regard, it is high time that we think of outsourcing the same to the private sector. The Metro and Bus system must be linked together to provide a modern-day urban Mass Rapid Transport System.
Knee jerk reactions like implementation of Odd-Even scheme, banning of crackers or even sprinkling of water through choppers are not sustainable solutions to solve the problem. Desperate times require desperate measures and we need to move quickly before the damage is irreversible.