Manoj Joshi: You can't solve pollution with a poll

Delhi’s pollution problem is too serious to be solved by political theatrics or pandering to the crowd, which is what Kejriwal is doing

There was a meme in movies on ancient Rome in the 1950s and 1960s. There would be the gladiators fighting, egged on by a stadium full of bloodthirsty Romans. Finally, came the moment when the defeated gladiator was to be killed or spared. The Roman emperor, usually Nero or Caligula, would look at the spectators for their preference, indicated by showing their thumbs up, or down. Usually pandering to the crowd, the Emperor would then signal his decision.

Almost all studies of the January 1-15 odd-even scheme show that the only value of the exercise was to decongest roads a bit; the removal of half the private cars made little difference to the levels of pollution. FILE Pic/AFPAlmost all studies of the January 1-15 odd-even scheme show that the only value of the exercise was to decongest roads a bit; the removal of half the private cars made little difference to the levels of pollution. FILE Pic/AFP

So the second round of Delhi’s odd-and-even car scheme to control pollution will take place next month. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s announcement to the effect on February 11 followed a decision-making process that hearkened to that old Roman style. What else can one say of a consultation with the 43,113 people in 276 mohalla meetings, that decided by an “overwhelming” 81 per cent to continue the scheme. It is not clear how many of these opinions had been mailed in online. Delhi’s population is, give or take a few, around 17 million.

Besides this crackpot ‘show of hands’ kind of consultation, there seems to be no valid rationale for repeating the experiment. It is not clear what it will achieve since the same set of exemptions have been made — single women, bikes and scooters and VIPs. So, no new data will be collected except through the changed weather conditions.

Second, almost all studies of the January 1-15 scheme show that the only value of the exercise was to decongest roads a bit; the removal of half the private cars made little difference to the levels of pollution.

The design of the experiment, especially the exemptions, suggest that this is a political tamasha, rather than a serious effort to resolve the pollution problem.

The exemption to single women drivers can be understood, given the poor state of security for women in the capital. But why the bikers? Simply because they belong to AAP’s mass base, are poorer people who cannot afford alternate transport like taxis (even the AAP government admits that the public transport is not up to it) and will resist any effort to prevent them from using their vehicles. So, conveniently, they have been excluded.

In the past month, after the ‘successful’ odd-even experiment, the AAP government has milked it for everything its worth. There were ads in the media, public contact programmes aimed more at shoring up the AAP’s political base, rather than an act of genuine consultation. One would imagine that all that the AAP government had been elected to do was to implement the odd-even scheme.

It is easy to see why this is happening. Shocked by the walloping they got in the state Assembly elections last year, the BJP has used all the instruments at its command to prevent the Delhi government from functioning. But Kejriwal & Co, unlike the fat cat Congress, are fighters and so have taken recourse to political theatre to keep their political head above water.

Pollution in Delhi is a serious problem. But almost all studies suggest that its causes are more complex than the vehicles in the city. A study carried out by IIT Kanpur indicated that road dust, burning biomass, industrial stacks contributed a greater share than vehicles. 56 per cent of the PM 10 and 38 per cent of PM 2.5 came from road dust. Biomass burning resulted in 17-26 per cent of the pollution and secondary particulate matter 25-30 per cent. Vehicles did contribute 9 to 20 per cent.

The clear policy response to this would be action on all these fronts. While the existence of the fine Indo-Gangetic plains dust and the straw burning create their own problems, there is no excuse for mounds of dirt lying around the roads in Delhi, and the lack of any kind of pavements.

Data on the outcome of the Jan 1-15 scheme is also mixed. The proponents of the plan hung on to every percentage point to make their case. But a Council on Energy, Environment and Water study in collaboration with the Energy Policy Institute showed little change in the PM 2.5 level between Jan 1-15 2016 and the same period in 2014. Indeed in 2014 it was significantly lower than in 2015, suggesting that Met conditions made the difference.

Everyone would wish Kejriwal and his team the best of luck in reducing pollution levels in the national capital. But it is not going to happen through street theatre. The Roman Emperor-type approach cannot be used to deal with what is an extremely serious problem. Referendums are dangerous and deceptive weapons. The only people who have learnt how to use them for good governance are the Swiss. The Californians, who tried to copy them through their Proposition ballots, have bankrupted their state with contradictory decisions.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

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