Cheap thrill

Friday 30 November 2007

a sudden spurt in public discussion in Delhi over worsening air quality over the last few years has brought into focus a few interesting points about controlling urban air pollution. This is not to lament over the capital's foul air, because Delhi's air quality still remains much better than that of Kolkata and Bangalore, but to point to the reasons why Delhi has to breathe bad air even after taking so many steps to check air pollution. It is important to discuss this because the men behind the shop windows are going to tell you that all these measures are useless and our hedonistic ride should continue unabated.

It is now evident that all gains in air quality through converting buses, taxis and three-wheelers to run on compressed natural gas (cng) and updating emission standards have been offset by the sheer growth in the number of vehicles on the road, largely private cars, of which a large proportion run on more subsidized diesel. The growing number, almost a thousand cars a day, are adding a lot to the city's air. Options, which seemed highly radical a few years ago, now look like soft measures. It's time for some tough talking.

Hard talk in a soft state? Even a child knows that public transport needs to be promoted to limit the number of private cars on the road. But the soft state has a great desire to grow, a soft growth. It means subsidizing the automobile industry with expensive infrastructure--roads, flyovers, parking lots--built with public money or money borrowed in the public's name. Decision-makers see investment in public transport as a waste of money. Opting for private vehicles has been made artificially cheaper by these growth-seekers.

Delhi's experience shows that it does not really matter even if a city is willing to back change for the better. The centre's backing for private vehicles will ensure we continue to beathe foul air. Central policymakers will sit at the ringside and applaud plans to flood the urban space with small cars, swarming like ants all around us. The same centre will try to fix deals on easy car loans with bank bosses when automobile bosses sulk over low bottom lines.

The rise in the fortunes of regional parties is always touted as a sign of the success of our federalism. Actually, however, all these parties want is to get their fingers into the soft centre. There is a lot to learn from radical steps taken by us states to combat air pollution, even if the president thinks otherwise. It is time for Indian state politicians and city managers to strike back and prove their worth.

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