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Want odd-even policy to succeed, Mr Kejriwal? Learn from the BRT fiasco

Sohail Hashmi | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 1:01 IST
QUICK PILL

New plan

  • Odd-even car restriction is a practical idea to curb air pollution
  • The city\'s toxic air kills 161 people a week, twice as many as in 2011
  • If we fail to act now, kids born today will grow up into wheezing asthmatics

Old pitfalls

  • The car user elite is dead against anything that inconveniences them
  • They ganged up to kill the brilliantly practical & democratic BRT system
  • They\'ll try to sabotage this plan as well, so the state must think it through

More in the story

  • BRT works well in China, Indonesia, Brazil, Columbia. Why did we kill it?
  • Delhi urgently needs 5,000 new buses but they are too costly for DTC to buy. Why? Buses here are taxed more than the cars

Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has come out with a very practical idea to curb Delhi's air pollution. It's an idea whose time has come, as the Americans would say.

Anyone who says Delhi's air is a killer is putting it mildly. The number of people dying of respiratory ailments daily stands at 23. This translates to 161 per week, 644 per month and 7,728 a year. The figures were half this only four years ago.

Also read - What PM2.5 pollution really means. And what it's doing to you and your kids

Even if the pollution levels don't worsen in the future, the cumulative effects of current exposure will keep pushing up the death rate. And, increasingly, it will be the children born today who will grow up into wheezing asthmatics, unfit for doing anything that calls for even mild exertion.

The resultant medical costs incurred by their families, especially in the face of rapid withdrawal of state spending on public health, will be backbreaking.

Don't let it go the BRT way

It's thus imperative that something is done about the soaring pollution, and done fast.

Kejriwal's plan, if implemented, can lift the gloom almost overnight. At the very least, we'll have to grapple with one killer less.

But - and this is a big but - despite the alarming situation, we need to guard against knee-jerk reactions. We must make haste but we can't be hasty.

We have seen how a very good idea like the BRT was killed by the undue rush with which it was put in place without due research and application of mind.

This allowed 10-15% of road users who owned cars to make shrill noises and send the political class into a panic, ensuring the dismantling of a system that directly benefited over 70% of the road users.

BRT is working well in 15 cities in Indonesia, 13 in Brazil, 20 in China. And we killed our only one

The BRT is a brilliant system to efficiently move the majority of commuters. And it's democratic because it allocates road space on the basis of the number of users travelling in different modes of transport.

It also allocates road space to the more vulnerable so bicycles, two wheelers, slow moving vehicles get specified lanes, and buses, trucks, ambulances, fire engines and other emergency services get more space than cars.

In third world countries, including those with illusions of grandeur, people who travel in cars are the privileged. Particularly at times when democracy isn't working in their favour, this privileged minority comes down upon all democratic decisions like a ton of bricks.

They did that to the BRT and are preparing to do it to Kejriwal's proposal to halve the number of cars on the roads.

Pushing back democracy, a lane at a time

In the case of the BRT, car users employed their twisted sense of hurt and injustice: "there are so many cars and they are being squeezed into two lanes while just a handful of buses have the entire road reserved for them".

They had no patience for the argument that four cars moved just 4 or 8 or at best 16 people, while one bus, occupying the same road space, moved 4-5 times as many people.

The BRT was killed because the car users were inconvenienced and they just don't like that. What added to the clamour against the BRT was the placing of buses on the right lane, a frightfully unintelligent idea in a country where traffic drives on the left.

Passengers had to tear across the road to board the buses and to get off the road, leading to accidents and avoidable fatalities. It was all grist to the mill of the howling and whining car owners.

Also read - 15 questions for the AAP govt on Delhi's new odd/even formula for vehicles

That the BRT was inaugurated even before the entire stretch was completed added to the confusion, and helped those used to getting their way in this city and in the country.

The rich elite, the noisiest segment of our population, rarely vote and hate any system that empowers the marginalised, those who walk, cycle or travel in buses and whose life the BRT was trying to make a little easier.

The BRT has worked wonders in cities all over the world - 15 cities in Indonesia, 25 in France, 16 in Canada, 35 in the US, 13 in Brazil, 11 in the UK, seven in Columbia, to list just a few.

It's also working well in 20 cities across China so much so that they are introducing it in nine more cities. While we, who are always trying to beat the Chinese at everything, have killed the only BRT we had.

Perhaps, we can take pride that we have beaten the Chinese in having the world's most polluted capital.

Don't let car owners dictate the policy

This analysis of the rise and fall of the BRT was necessary to underline the pitfalls facing any move that takes on the car owners of this city. According to official figures quoted by the Hindustan Times, the city has 8.5 million

private vehicle owners, constituting 25% of all road users.

Of these, 5.8 million people have two wheelers, leaving 2.7 million car owners. Since many among them come from families with two or more cars, the share of Delhi's population that owns cars is likely only around 10-15%.

The battle lines are being drawn on the proposal and all manner of agencies are jumping into the fray on the side of the Car Wallahs. Some senior person in the Maruti management wants a study done to identify the single largest source of pollution, suggesting, in the face of studies from across the world, that the culprit could be anything but the four-wheeled private vehicle.

The state must make buying multiple cars hard and costly. Or, the policy will may like in Mexico

All kinds of arguments have begun to adorn the pages of journals and dailies, and high-pitched voices that profess to speak for the nation are drowning any and every voice that tries to support the proposal.

One set of worthies wants all encroachments on roads to be removed, every one compelled to drive in lanes, all roadside parking to be stopped and new and better roads built before the proposal is implemented.

Another bunch has raised the question of women's safety, which they argue will be seriously jeopardised if half the cars are withdrawn from circulation. How utterly dim-witted! Of all the women in this city who go out to work, how many travel in cars? But then any stick is good enough to beat a good idea with.

Beef up the public bus fleet now

But let us be realistic. If 1.3 million cars are taken off the roads on a single day, we will have at least 1.7 million more commuters looking for transport. But we do not have enough auto-rickshaws, buses and other means of transport for them.

It has been suggested that to provide a viable public transport to this city of 14 million, it is necessary that aside from the metro, the DTC has to - on its own or with its cluster scheme partners - operate at least 10,000 buses.

The DTC, which had planned to gradually raise its fleet to 8,000, is now down to under 5,000 road-worthy buses. So, there is an urgent need for more than 5,000 new buses if the proposal to even out the odds against Delhi's air quality has to have a sporting chance.

DTC had sometime ago floated tenders for some 1,900 buses, but the prices and delivery schedules they proposed did not enthuse bus manufacturers.

One way to reduce bus prices is to cut taxes - which, incidentally, are higher than car taxes - but this isn't within the powers of the Delhi government. And the Narendra Modi regime isn't likely to play ball with Kejriwal.

The peak passenger load the metro has carried so far is 2.7 million, nearly equal to the number of privately owned cars in Delhi.

If half these cars, 1.35 million, are taken off the roads and only one person from every other car heads to the metro, it would have to carry an additional 650,000 extra passengers a day.

And this at a time when the DMRC is almost bursting at the seams. The new trains and carriages it has ordered aren't going to be delivered before the end of next year. So, unless the metro increases the frequency of its trains and adds more carriages per train, there will be mayhem.

The bus is still the cheaper alternative and a mode of transport that attracts a greater footfall than the metro. DTC buses ferry 4.5 million passengers daily against the metro's peak of 2.7 million. The metro has a lot of catching up to do and if the DTC gets the buses it wants, it will certainly widen the gap.

Don't let them game the system

But those being asked to do without their private cars will prefer the metro or the auto to the bus. We do not have enough of either.

The noise-makers have already started planning the purchase of another car to beat the odd-even proposal. This is how the undemocratic rich had reacted in Mexico when a similar scheme was introduced there.

To check this, the Delhi government has to obtain details of who owns how many cars, and frame rules to make purchase of multiple cars very difficult and very expensive.

Unless this is done - and it can't be done without help from the Centre as well as neighbouring states - the moneyed class, which cares two hoots for niceties like laws, will circumvent the rules and acquire more cars. The entire scheme will be sabotaged.

Therefore, launching this scheme on a trial basis for 15 days, without making alternative provisions and putting in place laws that prevent ownership of multiple vehicles, is the surest way of attracting the worst possible publicity against the scheme.

Rushing in without realising the full import of what is being attempted will be suicidal. It'll also ensure that no one talks of reducing the number of cars on Delhi's roads ever again.

MORE IN CATCH - What Bogota, Mexico City, Beijing's experiences tell us about Delhi's even-odd policy

Delhi Pollution: Living in the city is like living in a gas chamber, says High Court

First published: 12 December 2015, 8:59 IST
 
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