This blog post originally appeared in Hindustan Times.
Over the past few years, around the time when Diwali ends and winter sets in, Delhi’s plummeting air quality reaches dangerous levels, initiating a series of debates and actions among environmental experts, governments and citizens. Experts have attributed this post-Diwali decline in air quality to polluting firecrackers, crop burning, a change in the wind directions, and vehicular pollution. Several emergency measures like the odd-even programme, which starts in Delhi today, regulating the use of crackers during Diwali, and stopping construction work when the air quality crosses critical thresholds, have been introduced. This year’s post-Diwali bad news has come with a silver lining. Despite recording very poor air, analysis suggested that Delhi’s air quality index might have actually improved as compared to the past few years. However, it is important to view these indicators through a wider lens to stay focused on the true extent of the problem, in order to complement a robust, long-term mitigation plan.
Delhi’s air quality is not poor only during or after Diwali. It compares poorly with other cities of its size throughout the year. For example, the 2016 update of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Urban Ambient Air Quality database shows that the annual average level of PM10 during 2011-2015 was around 230 microgrammes/cubic metre (μg/m3) in Delhi, as against 125 in Mumbai, 135 in Kolkata, 160 in Dhaka, 175 in Cairo, 110 in Beijing, 80 in Shanghai, 55 in Istanbul, 40 in Sao Paulo and just 25 in Buenos Aires.
While time-specific activities such as crop burning and cracker bursting may be the predominant cause of toxic air over the next few weeks, Delhi’s air quality ordeal is much more complex and wide-ranging through the rest of the year. The transport sector of the city is a continual contributor to this problem. Hence, clean transport forms an important long-term strategy to improve the annual ambient air quality in Delhi.
In the early 2000s, the capital city mandated the use of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), a cleaner fuel compared to diesel, for all its public transport vehicles and its para-transit fleet. The benefits from this shift, though significant, have now been overpowered by the ever-increasing fleet of motor vehicles, thereby making it necessary to take additional measures. While Delhi had only about 4.5 million motor vehicles in 2006, the number has gone up to nearly 10 million today.
Towards this end, four measures would be worth exploring. First, a concerted effort towards encouraging personal motor vehicles users to shift to public transport is necessary. This would require well-designed and innovative public transport systems to meet the quality expectations of personal motor vehicle users. Comfortable passenger spaces and ambience inside the vehicles, pick up and drop points close to the passengers’ origin and destination points, and availability of transport on-demand play a critical role towards initiating this shift. Fortunately, on-demand taxi services offering sharing options show the potential for shared app-based public transport systems. Mini-buses operated by bus aggregators could prove even more useful as they would carry 10 to 12 passengers per unit of fuel consumed (or pollutants emitted), as against two or three passengers in a shared cab.
Second, an ambitious shift to electric vehicles (EVs). The shift from Internal Combustion Engine vehicles will need years of sustained efforts. Direct government actions to introduce EVs in its own fleet will drive the right message to the people. This could be followed up by introducing incentives that persuade a market-based shift to electric mobility. An aggressive awareness campaign must inform consumers about the benefits of EVs and how some of the barriers can be overcome.
Third, measures that improve last-mile connectivity to the Delhi metro would enhance the reach of the metro and make it an attractive option for the citizens. Offering direct access to the metro from some large residential and commercial complexes could further encourage people to use the metro.
Finally, the transport system in Delhi is highly fragmented. A metro system, two separate bus systems, multiple para-transit systems, suburban systems operated by the Indian Railways, are all independent services, with barely any communication with each other. Integrating these into one comprehensive system will make it easier to offer end-to-end connectivity. Facilitating this requires a lead agency to plan and manage Delhi’s transport, along the lines of the Transport for London. Such an agency can take charge of the multiple systems that operate independently.
It is true that making these changes will be difficult and will need complex studies and a multi-year effort. But, what can be a better place to start than the nation’s capital and soon to be the most populous city in the world, with pollution levels that need immediate and long-term reforms?