Don't blame it on cars alone

Don't blame it on cars alone

Delhi government was forced to back off from its plan to impose 4 car-free days on Chandni Chowk after local traders created a fuss. In any case, it should start dealing seriously with other causes of pollution as well

Delhi government was forced to scrap the car-free day this month after facing resistance from traders in Chandni Chowk market last week. Bolstered by rollout of two 15-day odd-even road rationing drives within a span of four months, the government had plans afoot to hold a 4-day curb on motorised vehicles in the busy market area.

Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s government initially wanted the car-free days to be a day-long affair, with an aim to in encourage the use of public transportation. The partial ban on private cars was supposed to be observed on the 22nd of every month, each time on a different stretch. This time, in Chandni Chowk, it wanted the `day’ to stretch 4 days.

Traders say the local wholesale businesses could have taken a hit due to traffic restrictions. Kejriwal government, which claimed its odd-even programme was a smashing success, couldn’t persuade the wholesalers otherwise, even though Public Works Department (PWD) Minister Satyendar Jain rushed in to salvage the situation.

After this month’s car-free day was called off, a senior transport official told Deccan Herald that the government was not discussing any more car curbs. “We are not currently discussing car-free day in Chandni Chowk. It has been put on hold due to high temperatures this summer,” the official says.

The ambitious odd-even scheme, banning vehicles on alternate days, has also been put on hold after the difficulties the government faced in April. Does this mean that a fatigue is setting in on the Delhi government’s car curb initiatives?

Suresh Bindal, president Delhi Hindustani Mercantile Association, says the government should not introduce traffic restrictions without ensuring hassle-free commute for anyone coming to Chandni Chowk.

Bindal says there are 64 small and big markets and plethora of places of worship for people of different faiths. He adds: “Before finalising the car-free day, the government did not spare a thought for the elderly people visiting Sis Ganj. How can they be deprived of their cars?”

Away in Karol Bagh market, the local car dealer association had put up posters last month, informing people about the availability of second-hand cars. It was in response to the government’s odd-even scheme, banning private cars with odd and even numbers on alternate days.

Vishal Sharma, a Mayur Vihar resident, says he had a harrowing experience dropping his child to school on days he could not take out his car due to odd-even restrictions, between April 15 and April 30. He adds that he either carpooled or hired a cab to reach his son to school.

“When CM Kejriwal hinted that the odd-even scheme will be introduced more frequently in future, I even considered buying a less expensive, second-hand car. What is the purpose of odd-even scheme when you are forced to buy a second car? I don’t think the government can overlook the fact that our public transport is really bad,” Sharma says.

According to a Delhi government-appointed committee, school-goers added more cars to the city roads during the odd-even curbs in April, leading to congestion in up to 6 km radius around schools.

The six-member panel was set up to study congestion prone areas in Delhi, among other things. As per the panel’s report, a ‘very high’ percentage of students used cars and other private vehicles to reach the school.

Unlike the first phase of odd-even in January, schools were in session. And so the government decided to include schoolchildren in its list of odd-even exemptions. Women were already spared from the odd-even rules due to safety issues in public transport.

Transport Minister Gopal Rai in one of his press conferences during the second odd-even scheme in April had cited a government survey to claim that 80 per cent of the mothers bring their kids back from schools, while 80 per cent of male parents take the responsibility dropping them to their schools in the morning.

Sharma says the onus of taking his son to school and bringing him back was totally on himself, as his wife spends two and half to three hours daily to commute to her office in Gurgaon.

The government is yet to conduct a large-scale survey to gauge people’s opinion on the odd-even scheme 2.0, sources say.

In January, the government had launched a website – oddevenidea.delhi.gov.in - where citizens could login and submit their feedback. People could also register their responses through phone calls, emails or the mohalla sabhas.

Eighty per of the 29,262 web users, who participated in the survey, voted in favour of having the second round of odd-even scheme. An astonishing 63.65 per cent of them said they want odd-even on a ‘permanent’ basis and 92.08 per cent of them said they are not keen on buying a second car, claimed the survey.

Ward number 225, Anand Vihar hosted the lone mohalla sabha that went against the odd-even formula in the survey conducted in 276 such community gatherings. Over 40,000 Delhiites turned up at these mohalla sabhas.

“Sir, the problem of traffic congestion and air pollution is continuously growing in the NCT of Delhi. We are organising car-free days on 22nd of every month to create awareness to de-congest the city roads and to contain air pollution by encouraging the people to use public transport,” Deputy CM Sisodia said, addressing Speaker of the Delhi Assembly during this year’s Budget session.

“We also implemented the odd-even formula during the first fortnight of January 2016 on a pilot basis and propose to continue the odd-even scheme in 2016-17,” he added.

According to CM Kejriwal, even the “worst reviews” by air quality monitoring agencies said the pollution levels in Delhi came down by 15 per cent after the first odd-even restrictions in January.

Centre for Science and Environment disputes Kejriwal’s claim, but says the odd-even car curbs stopped air pollution from getting worse. The New Delhi-based think tank also criticised the auto industry’s claim that vehicles are insignificant source of pollution.

Cars emit more particulate matter (PM) 2.5 – air pollutants that measures 2.5 micrometres or less – than any other key pollution sources in the Capital, CSE notes in one of its reports.

Transport official claims that the government’s priority is to first get more people to use public transport. “We have already issued notification for the app-based premium buses. Also we plan to acquire 1,000 new buses by the end of this year. That’s how we can get people to get off their cars,” a senior transport official says.
 According to a government estimate, the Delhi Metro ridership increased by less than 1 per cent while the bus ridership increased by about 5 per cent during the odd-even drive in April.

The government’s notification will allow bus aggregators such as Ola shuttle, ZipGo and Shuttl to operate premium or air conditioned buses on different routes across the city from June 1. As per the notification, the government “may prescribe upper limit of fare and/or take steps to check predatory pricing”.

But even as the Aam Aadmi Party government explores the possibility of strengthening public transport to back its car curb initiatives, the National Green Tribunal early this month asked the Delhi government to lay a similar emphasis on issues of pollution from dust and waste burning.

Delhi has slightly improved its ranking in the World Health Orgnaisation’s list of most of most polluted cities. According to the WHO’s recent report, titled: ‘Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution Database (update 2016), the national capital stands 11th globally in terms of fine particulate matter or PM 2.5, an improvement from being most polluted city in the world in 2014.

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