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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2041

Winter Blues In Delhi

By Allabaksh - Syndicate Features

Even before the first wisp of the crisp early morning air hit Delhi’s autumn we were being warned that the capital would be facing its ‘worst’ winter with air pollution crossing all previous ‘danger’ levels.

The deadly cocktail of polluted air and smog is something that is not peculiar to Delhi or any other Indian city. Cities like Jakarta and Beijing have been among the frequent victims. The people in these cities are seen wearing protective masks; the luckier ones leave for safer habitats elsewhere. One important point: Jakarta has no winter; Beijing can be unbearably cold in winter.

The two options outlined above are not exercised in Delhi, almost as a rule. So used are the people to the hazards of winter pollution that they like to brazen it out; it is only in recent years that some have started raising their voices against air pollution, a result of awareness of environmental issues.

Still, it is an odd Delhi’ite who can be seen wearing a protective face cover in winter months, though of late it can be noticed that many young women like to move with their faces covered with a scarf. No, it is not necessarily a religious gear; more likely a fashion statement or, perhaps, a device to stay out of the gaze of the street Romeos.

The people of Delhi may outwardly look indifferent towards any form of pollution (water included), but the reality is different. They cannot fight this hazard alone; their individual efforts can, at best, bring down the pollution levels. But not entirely; or even to the acceptable levels.

The two major sources of air pollution in Delhi are emissions from motor vehicles and the smoke from burnt leaves and similar other material. Perhaps factories, authorized or otherwise, also make a contribution. The question is how can emissions from vehicles be controlled? By checking their pollution level? Yes, but with upward of half a million vehicles plying on Delhi roads daily it might not be a job easily undertaken, especially when a large number of these vehicles enter from other states and the police force has to keep our ‘VIP culture’ intact.

A compulsion to carry the so-called pollution check certificate will work only on paper. How do you assure checking of all the vehicles on the roads on a given day? Not to forget the fact that reports have appeared that pollution check is no guarantee that the vehicle is actually free of any pollution.

The government of Delhi has come out with a solution of its own. It has decided that a tiny part of Delhi will be declared ‘car free’ for a day every month. The pollution on the road where this ban is applied will certainly fall steeply. But it is not clear if it will clean the air over the whole of Delhi, which should be the intention of any step taken to rid the capital of air (and other) pollution.

Experts never tire of saying that the number of cars on the roads can be brought down by improving the public transport system and also with the help of better and more scientific road engineering. This refrain itself is becoming tiresome because the bus service in Delhi has always been known to fall well below the expectations of the commuters.

The argument about better public transport system as the means to lessen congestion on the roads would seem to fall flat after the introduction of the Metro service in Delhi and its suburbs in the National Capital Region (in adjoining UP and Haryana areas). What is witnessed is that the Metro is getting more and more crowded--a sign perhaps of its popularity--but without any visible reduction in the volume of traffic on the roads. A car journey that took, for instance, half an hour a few years ago now takes almost double that time.

The experiment of BRT, trumpeted to make the traffic flow on roads smoother and make public transport as the preferred mode of travelling, has been a resounding failure. It could be because of some fault in planning the bus corridors or the habitual contempt of average Delhi’ite for discipline on the road or whatever else, the fact remains that an overwhelming number of people in Delhi think BRT was a bad joke.

The contribution to air pollution made by vehicles in Delhi (or any other part of the country) pales into insignificance when compared with the pollution caused by burning leaves and other things, including field waste. The burning of leaves and the field waste in Punjab and Haryana pollutes the atmosphere all over north India. The central government has asked the two state governments to ensure that the field waste is not burnt in the open.

How will that be achieved? The ban order cannot be made effective and it will not be followed in any seriousness unless there is a strict monitoring to stop its violation. No state government will be able to spare the manpower needed for the monitoring. The actual monitoring may be possible with the help of aerial surveys, but you still need ground staff to implement the ban order.

The state governments may be hesitant for another reason. The burning of leaves etc in the fields is an age-old practice in the interiors of India. The farmers think it helps them in farming. The burning of leaves, twigs and logs is an important way of keeping warm during the harsh winter days in the plains of north India.

The days when coal was used for this purpose has been a thing of the past. It is not difficult to visualize the rural population and even the poor in urban areas rising in protest should they be prevented from keeping themselves warm with a simple and free device.

The stock of husks and dry leaves can perhaps be better and profitably used for other uses in farming. They can be burnt in incinerators. But it will first require the government to be ready to lift the stocks of field waste and similar other material.

At the same time, the poor will expect to be provided cheap sources of fire on which they can do their cooking as well to keep their bodies warm. It will be many years before gas in pipes or cylinders can be supplied to all households in the interiors—and at reasonable rates which should not be seen as ‘subsidy’.

In short, with nothing to believe that a way has been found to restrict the number of cars and other motorized vehicles on the roads and no guarantee that the farmers of Punjab and Haryana will stop burning dried leaves, Delhi should brave itself for its ‘worst’ winter.

Will it be unrealistic to expect that the following year will not again be the ‘worst’?

- Asian Tribune -

Winter Blues In Delhi
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