Monday, January 06, 2014

Gasping into 2014

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, January 5, 2014

Photo: V. Sudershan
The Hindu Photo: V. Sudershan

It was a strange year. 2014 could be stranger. I use the word ’strange’ because when you look back, you cannot describe it within the binary of good and bad. Some good perhaps, but much more that was depressing.

So given current trends, both political and social, what will the next year bring? If you are a resident of Mumbai or Delhi and were to try and look into the future, you would not see very far. The quality of the air — fog in Delhi, smog in Mumbai — obscures everything. This state of affairs, I am afraid, is the future. Unless something changes. So my New Year wish is that in the next five years, we can breathe cleaner air in our cities.

Many people are hopeful that there can be change, given the spectacular performance of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the Delhi Assembly elections. What is clear now is that you cannot take the voter for granted. However, in this age of single-issue obsessions, driven to a large extent by the media, the beginning of a new year is a good time to remember that there are many more areas that require urgent attention than those emphasised by the shouting brigades on our television channels.

So even as we discuss the quantity of water that every individual living in an Indian city should have or the price to pay for electricity, thanks to the promises made to Delhi’s citizens by AAP, I would suggest that equally important is the quality of air we breathe.

Every winter, when the temperature drops there is a sense of resignation, as if smog and fog are inevitable. But is that true, or have we brought this situation on ourselves by not thinking ahead? We are a land of emergencies. Only when there is a crisis is some action taken. And more often than not, it is too little and too late.

The need for affordable and efficient public transport for our cities is a no-brainer. The most liveable cities in the world are those where people can commute comfortably using public transport. This is a consequence of policies that make public transport more efficient and cheaper than driving a car. The result is cleaner air that all can breathe.

Yet only eight out of 35 of India’s bigger cities have a reasonable bus system. In the smaller towns, the situation is much more dire. Public transport is being built in many cities. But there is randomness in the planning, most visible in a city like Mumbai where despite the impossibly over-crowded local trains and buses, an estimated 88 per cent of the population uses public transport.

In fact, in all the major cities, including Mumbai, the majority of people use public transport not because it is necessarily efficient but because it is cheaper than driving a car. Thus in Kolkata, 76 per cent use public transport, in Chennai 70 per cent and in Delhi 62 per cent. Also, despite the absence of pavements and safe ways to go from one point to another on foot, anywhere between 16 to 57 per cent of trips are on foot. Yet, the 10-15 per cent who commute by car and who use 90 per cent of the road space succeed in contributing a large part of the noxious pollutants that the rest of the population is forced to breathe.

Of course, those driving the cars avoid inhaling the poisons because they have the ability to insulate themselves within air-conditioned houses, air-conditioned cars and air-conditioned offices. The poor and the middle class have no such options. Think of the men who pull handcarts, those who drive auto rickshaws, the traffic police who have to stand for hours at traffic signals, those who commute on bicycles, and the people who live and sleep on pavements in so many of our cities, despite the weather.

Although more studies are needed to make the connection between this pollutant-laden air and disease, it is evident that it has contributed to an increase in asthma and respiratory ailments as well as damage to the heart in the urban population. The most vulnerable are children and the elderly.
So as we launch into 2014, a year that is likely to herald some dramatic political changes, and a year when political parties will be bending over backwards to win the urban vote now that AAP has shaken them up, why not add clean air to the list of demands that we make on those whom we elect to govern us?

(To read the original, click here.)

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