Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has a cough that worsens every winter. He knows just how terrible the smog can be to those with respiratory problems. Yet, it took a rapping from the National Green Tribunal for the state government to convene an emergency meeting to tackle the smog that has blanketed the capital ever since winter began in the last week of November.
Kejriwal’s multipoint formula, like everything else about him, is sound on principle, even though in practice, there could be many pitfalls. The highlight of his plan is to reduce private cars on the road using the odd-even formula for alternate days. While the plan has evoked much debate, inspired memes and triggered a slew of jokes, Kejriwal is a bit peeved that not enough attention has been given to the other measures. These include delaying entry of trucks into the city from 9pm to 11pm, shutting down the polluting Badarpur thermal power plant and looking at closing down the Dadri plant, too.
Since manual sweeping of roads is only adding dust to the air, the government will now vacuum-clean the roads. More vigil will be taken to ensure that garbage and leaf litter are not burnt in the city. Conversion to cleaner fuel will be expedited. The government also plans to step up greening the city.
The mitigation plan is in line with the directions of the Environmental Pollution Control Authority, which had in November asked the Delhi government to find solutions to reducing cars on road. Chief Justice of India T.S. Thakur, too, has lent his support to the car-reducing scheme, as have most environmental and health agencies.
The political climate of Delhi, however, is more difficult to tackle. The National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre does not seem much inclined to support the scheme, which hinges on police participation. And the Delhi Police, as Kejriwal has pointed out several times, is not under his control.
Politics apart, the scheme also needs a robust public transport system, which Delhi lacks. Delhi Metro has already thrown up its arms in despair: it is running to maximum capacity and cannot further augment services for additional commuter load. Last mile connectivity remains poor in most areas. Safety of women commuters is another issue that will come up. A litigant has already gone to court protesting the car scheme, saying it is being imposed without taking public opinion.
In north India, there is a peculiar practice. Farmers burn the stubble on their fields between harvest and the next sowing in November. The smoke from the fields worsens Delhi’s air. “The authorities should have worked on stopping the burning in advance,” says urban planner Shailesh Pathak. Another resident wonders why polluting diesel cars are allowed on the road.
The government says the car scheme will be introduced on a trial basis for 15 days from January 1. Given that the smog has already settled over Delhi, the attempt will be too little, too late. Residents say that, had the government planned to deal with the smog in advance, schemes would have been in place even as winter started. This winter, therefore, will be one of discontent, lofty plans notwithstanding. There is no comfort in the thought that Delhi has beaten Beijing at something, finally.