Politics of pollution!

Air is thick in Delhi, literally and figuratively. The winter fog laden with smoke, heavy particulates and dust has not left any scope to think otherwise. Newspapers/ social media and activists are filled with smog and rage. Yes, Delhi air is literally thick.

Not to be left behind in such moments of crisis, Arvind Kejriwal Govt, like any other responsive govt, has initiated actions which as usual have muddied the waters more than to clear it and we are in the thick of actions figuratively.

Truth is, Delhi is dying and dying fast. Pollution levels are 6 to 8 times higher than permissible limits. Bowing to public demand and driven by smart statements like “drastic times need drastic measures”, AAP Govt has indeed implemented a drastic rule curiously named “Odd and Even”.

The rule thought and executed in Mohammad Bin Tughlaq style started in usual Delhi babudom style where more vehicles have been exempted than covered under it except the symbolic inclusion of the Chief Minister.  As per estimates, the total no of vehicles expected to be off road (in this case private cars) is less than 10% of total no of vehicles on the road. So far the evidence is indicating the fallacy of such a plan where the traffic has indeed become better but there is no drop in pollution at all.

While the jury is still out on the real cause of pollution to whether it is dust, crop burning smoke, diesel vehicles’ emission or overall smoke emitted by cars, there is a unanimous view among the citizens for the need to reduce usage of personal automobiles and encourage public transport.

Every Govt. all across the world is working on reducing the no. of private vehicles on road. However, it is easier said than done as this needs massive rethinking as well as state intervention in terms of city planning, redesign, capacity building along with attitude shifting, and will easily take 18 months to 5 years in proper execution.

However, in this high pitched debate about “Odd / Even”, experts seem to be forgetting that vehicles caught in traffic jams or moving at snail’s pace cause more pollution than a same number of vehicles moving at optimal speed. When traffic is chaotic and is moving at a slow pace, one ends up using 2nd/3rd gear or apply the more clutch/brake and hence release more smoke/unburnt fuel in the air. E.g., 22nd Dec 2015 was No Car Day which saw hours-long massive traffic snarls all across east Delhi due to non-operation of Vikas Marg and that night was the most polluted night in the history of Delhi.

The present implementation of Odd-Even plan did saw an increase in city speed as a considerable number of vehicles were off-road. However, rather than gloating about success, one needs to introspect about the long-term viability of such a plan. At present due to high fine and very high decibel campaign, a lot of travel has been postponed or adjusted in near term as this plan is only for 15 days. Further, this plan has not eliminated demand or made carpooling very popular. Hence in long-term, the demand will come back to a natural meaning same number of vehicles will come back to the road.

While the speed of the city can be impacted by reducing the number of vehicles on road, it can be increased in a more sustainable manner by regulating the speed of the slowest vehicle on the road. And slowest vehicle on road is the politicians’ favorite “Auto Rickshaw” (max 55 kmph) or Goods Carrier (average speed 25 kmph). Dr. Eliyahu M. Goldratt in his seminal book “The Goal” demonstrated that the speed of any system is determined by its slowest moving part.

Hence, Delhi moves at the speed of 30 kmph not because of excessive vehicles on the road but because of the speed of auto-rickshaws or goods carriers, which move at speed of 30/35 kmph. Every day one encounters a fully-loaded Bajaj auto struggling to climb a fly-over at a speed of 25 kmph and a long serpentine queue behind it struggling to get to adjoining lane and thus slowing whole traffic.

So the pollution level can be dropped drastically if the speed of Delhi can be increased by 25/30 kmph as it will eliminate all road jams as well as slow speed. So what’s the solution? Ban auto-rickshaw with a bureaucracy mentality and earn the ire of the middle class as well as erode massive vote bank of auto drivers? Yes, actually!

This solution is quite simple if one moves away from the politics of it. The only thing Govt needs to do is to replace slow moving auto-rickshaw with a car. Cars are safer, faster and are all-weather vehicles unlike an auto. Further, cost of an auto is around INR 2 lakh and with permit / convenience fee, etc., auto-rickshaw cost on the road is around 5 lakh. In comparison, Tata Nano CNG car costs close to 2.5 lakh. So rather than issuing new auto permits, Govt shall launch a massive auto upgrade program which with proper structuring / debt plan can enable all auto-owners to shift to Tata Nano. With a total population of 1 lakh auto rickshaws, the whole program can be done at a cost of less than INR 250 Cr one time cost (Complete makeover cost is 2500 Cr).

Such upgrade will save 10x more in terms of savings in fuel costs / health care and will result in much cleaner air, and on top of that get massive votes from auto owners. However, such a move needs political will and desire to solve issues at the core. Unfortunately, pollution in Delhi is more about politics and a game of one-upmanship where all authorities involved in the affair are looking for scapegoats and opportunities to shame the opponent rather than actually saving the lungs of its citizens. So whether it is pollution or governance, the victim is always the Great Indian Citizen. Ever optimistic, forever cheated!