The Big Ban Season: Stopgap Solutions To Delhi Pollution Will Simply Not Work
As Delhi residents brace for the smog, a series of bans are stalking the capital.
While the capital’s transport system needs a massive overhaul to keep pace with such bans, tackling the critical causes of pollution must be the priority.
Residents of the National Capital Region (NCR) of Delhi and its satellite cities are gearing up for the inevitable smog that is the region’s hallmark during the festive season coupled with the onset of winter.
Along with air pollution comes a series of bans, from the 2015 odd-even scheme to banning fireworks, construction and more. The latest in this series of bans is a more draconian version of the odd-even debacle — a total restraint on the plying of private vehicles. A report in the Economic Times says the Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) — a Supreme Court mandated body under the Centre — was mulling the ban from 1 November if the scenario gets worse, though there is still no formal announcement of the clamp at the time of writing this article.
The clamp on private vehicles will be accompanied by a series of other bans on construction and brick kilns activities, diesel generators and burning of garbage, most of which will cripple the capital’s economy, particularly hurting small businesses and daily-wage labourers. The practice of burning garbage meanwhile should logically be obsolete if the agencies responsible for collection handle them the right way.
While the issue of pollution is a serious one, solutions to it have been proposed many times, from segregation of waste to prevent landfill fires to conservation agriculture to incentivising the private sector to handle paddy stubble to environment friendly fireworks. As far as vehicular pollution is concerned, a bulk of it comes not from privately-owned four-wheelers but from trucks and motorcycles.
Further, the issue of pollution from commercial vehicles isn’t much of an issue. Following a Supreme Court directive, all buses in the National Capital Territory (NCT), both private and government-owned run, on compressed natural gas (CNG), and other commercial vehicles too have followed suit as CNG is a cheaper fuel. Along with this, the opening of the Eastern Peripheral Expressway (EPE) saw nearly 50,000 trucks give the capital a miss. Common sense dictates that vehicles maintaining a steady speed without any idling consume less fuel and therefore pollute less.
However, the problem at hand is not of pollution, but of what will happen to the city’s transit system if such a policy were to be implemented.
Where Does Delhi’s Transport System Stand?
Delhi’s public transit today includes India’s largest mass rapid transit system (MRTS) — the Delhi Metro. It is without doubt that the nearly 300 km-long Delhi Metro is India’s most efficient system but that is exactly the issue. The Delhi Metro is the only viable form of public transport in the metropolis. The only comparable metropolitan region in India — Mumbai, with a population density of 32,000 people per square km (nearly thrice that of Delhi) has a 465-km long suburban railway network that carries over 7.5 million passengers daily. Despite the fact that only one line is operational, the Mumbai Metro carries over 4 lakh passengers across 10 km, making it the eighth densest metro system in the world. Delhi, on the other hand lacks a comparable suburban railway network. As far as buses are concerned, they have to contend with the same traffic as other vehicles, clocking an average of 27 km per hour in non-peak hours; slower than Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt’s run.
Now if such a ban were to come into effect …
The first issue for many a person would be reaching the metro station. It is not rare to see people take their cars to metro stations in Delhi. While many a passengers are chauffeured, others choose to carpool. Rather than encouraging carpooling (including its commercial variant cabpooling), over-regulation in the form of limiting the number of pooled rides is being considered by the powers that be.
The second segment of commuters that would be affected is those who drive their vehicles on a daily basis. The number of registered vehicles on Delhi’s roads crossed the 1 crore mark in 2017. Of this number, more than 66 lakh are two-wheelers. The immediate fallout of a ban would severely affect the supply and demand of auto rickshaws and cabs in the city. While Delhi’s auto drivers are known to overcharge, surge pricing on app-based aggregators would make it unaffordable for many middle class and upper middle class commuters. In 1989, Mexico City had implemented a policy Hoy No Circula (HNC) under which certain vehicles could not be driven on a specific day of the week based on the registration number. In the three decades since the policy was introduced, vehicle ownership increased, mostly in the form of older, used cars. In order to meet the demand, cab drivers might procure older vehicles at cheaper rates to ply across Delhi, thus defeating the very purpose of such a ban.
The metro currently carries 2.76 million (27.6 lakh) passengers between 219 stations across 296 km (not including the recently opened segment of the Pink Line). Services on the system are highly saturated with eight-coach trains plying full on the broad gauge routes and six also plying full on the standard gauge routes. Despite the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) doing its best to run trains with a headway as low as 2 minutes and 38 seconds, the system is still overcrowded.
The complicated nature of the NCR — a union territory surrounded by Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, both with multiple cities — further compounds the situation. The Delhi Metro extends into three cities, Gurgaon, Faridabad and Bahadurgarh in Haryana and Noida and Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh. The Ghaziabad extension of the Red Line is yet to be thrown open. Both Gurgaon and Noida have their own metro systems as well. While the Noida-Greater Noida Metro is expected to start operations soon, Rapid Metro Rail Gurgaon (RMRG) carries 75,000 passengers across 11.7 km daily.
Thus, a huge segment of the metro’s ridership is people entering the capital from the satellite cities.
In order to overcome this congestion, the NCR needs to think beyond the Delhi Metro.
While it is important for Gurgaon and Noida to set up a larger metro network independent of the Delhi Metro, alternative solutions need to be looked at. Other cities in the NCR, namely Ghaziabad and Faridabad too need their own independent MRTS networks, be it a metro or suburban rail.
The next step would be to make use of the eastern and western peripheral expressways that encircle the NCR. This author had earlier suggested building high-capacity mass transit systems along the medians of expressways, on the lines of the L-train in Chicago that runs along the median of the Interstate highways. The Delhi Metro as well as its sister networks (Noida and Gurgaon) should be extended to meet these beltways to ensure proper connections.
However, both these systems are capital intensive and will not serve the core city. In order to solve this, the administration will have to revive the city’s hardly visible suburban railway services, especially the Delhi Ring Railway.
Built in 1975, the 35-km long Ring Rail has 20 stations with services operating every 60 to 90 minutes. The reason for their dismal patronage is visible — lack of proper connectivity. This is the same reason that has resulted in Chennai’s rail services too not having many footfalls. In order to solve this, the administration — central, union territory and civic — will need to coordinate and take a leaf out of Mumbai’s playbook. Mumbai’s station area traffic improvement scheme (SATIS) saw major railway stations get a massive overhaul with footbridges, skywalks, and parking spaces for autos and taxis being built. Thane and Andheri stations today feature an elevated deck for buses and autos respectively. Since the electrical multiple units (EMUs) used on the ring railway consist of nine or 12 cars, they can carry a higher number of passengers. Northern Railways might very well follow Mumbai’s footsteps and introduce air-conditioned EMUs to attract the upper middle class. Alternatively, Nagpur MP Nitin Gadkari’s proposal to run broad gauge metro trains on regular tracks to connect Nagpur to neighbouring towns can also be considered for routes extending to Gurgaon, Faridabad, Noida and Ghaziabad.
The upcoming Regional Rapid Transit System (RRTS) is expected take off some of the load on routes connecting towns located further away in the greater NCR such as Meerut, Panipat and Alwar.
As R Jagannathan writes, no public transport policy will work if vehicle owners are not disincentivised relative to public transport. If the administration wants to ban private vehicles, it needs to first strengthen the public transit network.
Delhiites need to keep in mind that until proper action is taken against the real causes of pollution, namely stubble burning, they are in for a heavily polluted winter season. Delhi’s transport system needs a massive overhaul to keep up with such bans. For bureaucrats and politicians alike, it is easier and more convenient to blame cars for pollution and come up with ridiculous stop-gap solutions, which also turn out to be a golden egg-laying goose in terms of fines collected. Until the pollution crises is averted, year after year, India’s capital will be subject to one inane ban or the other, and it is in the city’s best interest that the transit network upgrades itself.
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