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The Odds are Even

The Odds are Even
Everybody is breathing dust in the national capital. We are all in dire straits and our collective lungs are aching for oxygen. The situation is indeed desperate, so desperate that the mere act of breathing is shortening lives with every whiff of inhaled air. All the sins of negligence of the city planners and the city managers are coming home to roost. Air was free and came with a kind of divine guarantee that it will always be there and will always be fresh. Nobody was prepared for Nature’s betrayal to this magnitude, that all residents, high or low, are getting their lungs stuffed with dust and pollutants. As desperate situations call for desperate remedies, we are now collectively scampering for any solution that will allow us to breathe again some semblance of clean air.

The Delhi government, in a sense, stole the march and announced that the private motor cars being one part of the offending polluters, should, therefore, be reduced by allowing odd and even registration numbers to ply the roads on alternate days. Of course, politics swung into action first. The opponents of the Delhi government went ballistic at the suggestion and pronounced it thoughtless and unimplementable. Some of us are born with a sense of inherited right to condemn and criticise without the responsibility to provide an alternative answer. So the authors of the idea had the additional responsibility to justify the logic to all sections of society. The situation being so bad, that the people have at last begun to want to try the idea for lack of anything else. This is a hopeful sign.

Even before the introduction of the odd-even numbers plying of cars alternately, there is a chorus of demand for more. Yes, more needs to be done. The judiciary, always, in the forefront of compelling governmental action for the benefit of the citizen, has stepped in with some desperate measures on its own. A ban is being imposed on the fresh procurement of the diesel engine cars. Another government agency wants to shut down the coal based power plant as it is a major pollutant. Not to be left behind in contributing to the so called clean up, the Education department will shut all schools for an extended period. It is a free for all as what we are seeing today is the result of criminal neglect of urban planning and management of the cities. Delhi is reacting because the environmental manifestations have become unbearable. Chennai is reacting for the same reasons. The flood damage was preventable if the sluice gates had been opened in time as proposed by the Public Works Department but not sanctioned because the authorities were awaiting the clearance by the Chief Minister. In city after city, the neglect of the environment is starkly obvious. Solid waste and biomedical waste coupled with electronic waste is destroying the environment for citizens, poor or rich, and the medical bills of the people are rising. India’s problems are, indeed, faecal and call for warlike responses across the country. Where do we start? These problems are known to everybody.

The answers begin with honest regulation. We have environment laws, each state has a pollution control board and an Act to back it up. These boards have either been comatose or complicit in allowing non-compliance of the provisions of their Acts. The use of plastic, which has been banned everywhere, continues its rampage in cities and across villages as well. Can we sincerely enforce the ban and other provisions of this very important law? The increasing waste being generated by our cities has been customarily dumped in landfill sites outside city limits but in the proximity of peri-urban settlements. The consequences have accumulated into a mountain size problem causing contamination of ground water and toxic fumes for surrounding habitations. Every municipality has a waste management law. Again, not observed except in breach. Can we sincerely begin to treat our waste before it is deposited in landfill sites? The magnitude is of the order of 35.5 million tonnes of municipal waste annually. If ignored, this problem alone has the potential to bury our cities and life in them in a decade.

We have for long been sold short on technology. The automobile sector has been as guilty as other industrial manufacturing machinery. The collaborations have been for import of the outdated and environmentally unfriendly technologies. The world, especially the West, has moved on to cleaner fuels and low carbon emission technologies. We need to adopt the latest protocols and enforce them as standards in India. Restricting leaded fuels and banning the use of high sulphur content in fuels is important for cleaning the environment. After all, automobiles and transport are the major carriers of people and goods and will continue to be. Limiting road use to odd and even numbered vehicles is only an emergency management act, and not a solution.

The burden of performance for the clean environment has to fall on the local government of the city. Our municipal governance is abysmal for various reasons. In a do or die situation, as we are today, it is better to go for the “do” option. “Do” means rejuvenation of this institution through resourcing and building competence. It is true that gamblers betting big always like to have the odds in their favour. The hard working man, sure of his efforts and ability to achieve his goals is ready to work with even odds. The experiment of alternating car use to odds and even numbers, about to begin in the new year of 2016, deserves a fair trial. Who knows we might succeed and shorten the odds against clean air. 

(Views expressed are strictly personal)
Raj Liberhan

Raj Liberhan

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