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Saving Delhi’s Lungs

Armin Rosencranz and Siddharth Johar

Ever since the World Health Organisation named New Delhi as the most polluted city on the planet in May 2014, there has been a lot of wringing of hands about the deteriorating condition of the city’s environment and the negative implications of the same on the health of the residents. Newspapers have published extensive articles on the issue, prime-time viewing hours of top news-channels have been dedicated to its discussion and even the government and judiciary within the city have taken note of the ubiquitous predicament.

Of course, discussion is an indispensable element for change. However, only discussing the issue will not help change the situation. The implementation of proposals is a step that actually makes change happen. For implementation, it is necessary to carry out the required facets with efficiency and effectiveness to ultimately reach the goal that one has set out.

The goal in this case would be minimising the polluting factors in Delhi and improving the quality of its environment. An effective plan of action to reach this goal should address factors that are widespread in the city and are a major contributing force to its polluted condition.

Following are some crucial areas which need immediate attention and a pro-active approach:

Road traffic

Road pollution today is the big source of pollution in the Capital. It has garnered public attention, especially with the National Green Tribunal placing a temporary ban on sale of diesel vehicles, the High Court of Delhi giving the odd-even scheme its go-ahead and the Supreme Court of India placing regulatory standards on the sale of diesel vehicles and entry of commercial vehicles into Delhi.

In recognition of the truck issue identified by the Supreme Court of India, there is urgent need of a highway corridor to be created around the borders of Delhi. Such infrastructure would require allotment of funds and efficient coordination between the authorities within Delhi and those of the states surrounding Delhi i.e. Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. This is certainly an achievable feat due to availability of land on areas around borders of Delhi and the two states.

The purpose of this highway circling Delhi is simple – trucks and private vehicles bound to and from destinations outside Delhi, using the capital as a route, would be kept out of the city thanks to this highway. To quote an example – today a vehicle travelling from the cities of Palwal (south of Delhi) to Sonipat (north of Delhi), would be going through Delhi due to lack of a border highway corridor which could have helped it avoid Delhi’s traffic and congestion.

Instead, the vehicle becomes a part of the said traffic congestion like thousands of other vehicles every day, hence adding to the polluting environment. The idea of this ‘ring road’ around Delhi is similar to the M25 which encircles the city of London in the United Kingdom. The M25 is an excellent piece of infrastructure that keeps vehicles travelling to and from cities surrounding London from entering London.

As the infrastructure within the city cannot be completely changed, the measures needed to combat pollution have to be a balance between changes in infrastructure and changes in policy.

Infrastructurally, all major roadways in the city should charge tolls, with exemptions or lower tolls being charged for full vehicles as compared to vehicles having only 1-2 occupants. The purpose of such tolls would be to encourage car-pooling and the use of public transport. Another infrastructural change that would encourage use of public transport is creation of large car parking services at major metro stations and major entry/exit points of the city. Policy-wise, the tax payable on purchase of petrol and diesel vehicles should be increased while decreasing the tax payable on the purchase of CNG and electric vehicles. This would encourage use of the safer and low polluting fuel.

Public Transport

An efficient network of public transport is indispensable to a pollution free environment. A good system of public transport would encourage residents to use the same and significantly cut down road transport. This would lead to reduced congestion on roads and saved fuel.

To encourage use of public transport, it is important for the option to be made more appealing to city residents by first improving standards of public transport and second, by imposing costs on private vehicles as proposed above. The idea of creating parking services at major metro stations as mentioned above is a salient feature. Other steps include integrating all forms of public transport such as the Delhi Metro and the DTC bus services into a common entity such as making a common payment platform for both the services and creating smartphone applications that help commuters identify the best possible routes for them. Comfort and services at metro stations and bus stops should also be given preference. Such changes would bring about efficiency and convenience, making public transport an appealing option even for car-owners.

Green Cover

Trees are nature’s answer to reducing pollution. These natural air purifiers help in bringing down the amount of pollutants present in the air by absorbing carbon and giving off oxygen. This would also reduce human respiratory problems. As per an affidavit filed at the High Court of Delhi by the Government of Delhi in 2015, 20.8 percent of the land in the capital is under forest cover.

Even though this seems a good number, a city as polluted as New Delhi cannot have enough greenery. What is needed right now is diligent and spirited planting of trees at every possible place in the city. The authorities must also maintain the already existing green covers in the city. Therefore, green spots such as the Southern Ridge forest, Aravalli Biodiversity Park, Sanjay Van and others need to be clearly demarcated as green zones and should be kept free from any development that might threaten the existence and tranquility of these green covers.

Factories in Delhi

Even after the 2004 Supreme Court judgment ordering all factories to be shifted out of residential areas of Delhi, at present, there are hundreds of unregulated and unchecked small scale factories in industrial and residential areas of the capital. These factories are laying waste to all efforts of cleaning up the Yamuna or improving the capital’s air quality. Due to population density and, in some cases, connivance of Government officials, these non-conforming factories are polluting the city on a daily basis. The authorities need to understand the gravity of the situation and pro-actively weed out these non-conforming factories.

Secondly, it is important to incentivise the shifting of these factories outside Delhi. For this, there needs to be coordinated implementation between authorities of Delhi and those of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. Creation of Special Economic Zones on the outskirts of the capital and in the bordering states would greatly incentivise the shifting of these factories. These SEZ’s should have a basic level of infrastructure including roads and housing for labourers. Residents of New Delhi can play an important role in this regard by identifying any non-conforming factories and bringing their existence to the authorities’ notice.

Waste Management

Improper management of waste material imperil public health and safety. Different types of waste produced in Delhi on a daily basis include human waste, biomedical waste, electronic waste and plastic waste. Safe and effective management of this waste is an absolute necessity. Improper waste management can lead to land degradation, air pollution and pollution of water bodies. It can also lead to spread of diseases and disabilities due to polluted living conditions and inhalation of harmful fumes. Illegal waste management sites on the outskirts of Delhi are a big source of concern as unsafe working conditions and improper setups can have harmful impacts on the people working at such sites. The authorities need to shut down all such units and completely take control of all waste management activities in the city. Proper waste management units must be established and persons employed at such units must be provided with proper equipment to minimise any harmful effects of their close proximity to huge amounts of waste.

The five areas identified above are major sources of pollution in New Delhi. Effective implementation of the proposals enumerated above would be a vital and encouraging step towards a cleaner, less polluted Delhi. It will also enable a pro-active approach by authorities and participation by residents. A new era of an environmentally safe Delhi can begin when residents of the city and the authorities work together to insure that Delhi has a clean and rejuvenating environment for the present and future generations.

Armin Rosencranz is a Professor of Law at Jindal Global University and Siddharth Johar is a practicing lawyer and a graduate of JGU.  

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