‘We needed a drastic step involving people… Mindset has to change on pollution’

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Updated: December 13, 2015 12:27:36 AM

Delhi transport minister Gopal Rai and PWD minister Satyendar Jain explain the rationale behind odd-even car scheme and why taxes alone can’t help, claim they are already seeing a fading of ‘pessimism’ regarding the move, and say they will be pushing train services as well as cycles as last-mile connectivity

Why Gopal Rai & Satyendar Jain

As the Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi embarks on an ambitious plan to control pollution levels in the capital, including allowing odd, even numbered vehicles on the city’s roads on alternate days from January 1, Satyendar Jain and Gopal Rai are ministers tasked with implementing some of these measures. PWD minister Jain heads the government’s steering committee that is chalking out the plan while transport minister Rai is responsible for augmenting the city’s public transport in step with the scheme.

MAYURA JANWALKAR: Can you tell us a bit about the odd-even scheme that will be implemented from January?

GOPAL RAI: At a conference on September 22 on the occasion of World Car Free Day, we realised that countries that have seen development, industries and influx of cars eventually have had to give up cars and opt for bicycles. Their doctors advised them that in order to survive, they must move out of their cities.

Then, we visited Stockholm. In the 1960s-70s, pollution in Stockholm was worse than that in Delhi, and people had started leaving the city. A new political establishment there came up, and it started thinking in a new manner, taking Stockholm from reverse gear to forward gear. Today, Stockholm is the green city of Europe. They emphasise the most on public transport system.

Only in Delhi public transport runs on CNG, but private vehicles in the city outnumber all such vehicles in Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata put together. So, we decided at the September 22 conference that the 22nd of each month will be a car-free day. The first car-free day was organised on October 22 between Red Fort and India Gate. We had a cycle rally where many youngsters participated. The second car-free day was in Dwarka from 8 am to 4 pm. In both cases, pollution levels dropped by 40-45%. We realised that devising a system for vehicles can check pollution levels.

When the Delhi High Court made its observations on pollution, we began thinking of solutions and sought suggestions from people. Apart from backing the concept of a car-free day, most people also favoured the even-odd experiment in Delhi. When we first proposed the scheme, it was met with a lot of apprehension, but with each passing day, the pessimism is fading. Everywhere I go, people talk about car pools, ask each other about their car numbers. At the primary level, a conversation has started.

MAYURA JANWALKAR: What other suggestions were made at the December 4 meeting where the odd-even scheme was decided? Why do you think it is the most effective scheme for Delhi?

GOPAL RAI: A few days before our meeting, the Delhi High Court had observed that the city has become a gas chamber and that the government must find an action plan for this problem. So, the CM had called this meeting where 8-10 main points were raised, like an app system to manage waste in colonies, shutting the electricity production plants that use coal, devising a vacuum cleaner system for cleaning dust in heavy construction areas and along the roads, etc.

On the question of reducing the number of cars in the city, we gathered from different studies that 12 countries such as Greece, France and Mexico had done the odd-even experiment. In Beijing, where the experiment was conducted in 2008, the first phase was successful. We studied this and realised that we need to get into emergency mode and take a big step.

MAYURA JANWALKAR: Singapore has a congestion tax. Was such an option considered?

GOPAL RAI: The vehicles that enter Delhi pay a pollution tax. We are already taking a lot of steps to curb pollution in the capital, but we needed a drastic step where people are directly involved. We can impose a number of taxes, but to implement these steps you need a change in mindset. We plan to change the design of 10 streets in Delhi—the first priority will be given to pedestrians, then to cyclists, then public transport and finally cars. But if we implement such a model, and people do not have the right mindset, there will be protests.

MAYURA JANWALKAR: How do you plan to tackle the issue of last mile connectivity?

GOPAL RAI: Till now, cycle rickshaws have been the most instrumental in last mile connectivity. We plan to reduce the coverage area of metro feeder buses to 4-5 km for shorter travel time and increased frequency. Also we plan to focus on the use of cycles. Today driving a car has become a status symbol. I want a day when riding a bicycle becomes a status symbol in the capital. People should take selfies with those who ride bicycles and say they are eco-friendly.

In Stockholm, businessmen and engineers get off the bus and metro, swipe their cards at a cycle stand and ride to wherever they want to go.

APURVA: What effect do you think 15 days of implementing the odd-even scheme will have?

GOPAL RAI: With half the number of cars on the road under the odd-even scheme, pollution levels should go down by 20-25%.

COOMI KAPOOR: What will you do about violations of law, like the use of fake licence plates to go around the odd-even plan, or policemen taking bribes?

GOPAL RAI: We are planning to do close monitoring, we will also begin to enrol volunteers and rope in RWAs. On the car-free day in Dwarka, schools and RWAs participated in large numbers. They organised their own meetings, put up posters and notices in their areas and came early morning to participate. Every scheme will have its pros and cons, but when people are directly involved, it all reaches the ground level.

MAYURA JANWALKAR: Why have two-wheelers not been brought under this scheme yet?

GOPAL RAI: Some things are still under discussion. First, which cars will fall under its purview? Second, will this be applicable to Delhi cars or all cars entering Delhi? Three, who all should receive exemptions? If someone falls sick suddenly, what will they do? If someone is disabled, what will they do? If someone is going for a wedding, what will they do? Yesterday, I was on a TV channel and a person asked me that my astrologer has told me that you should only use cars with numbers 1, 3, 7, so will the government provide me a car? People are saying a lot of things. They are under consideration. We will examine them and announce a blueprint on December 25.

PRITHA CHATTERJEE: In Delhi, there have been several studies on sources of pollution. Did you consider any particular study before taking this decision? Why did you decide to target vehicles first?

GOPAL RAI: No, we did not look at one study. We had organised a Delhi Transport Vision conference here in August. There were seven presentations and all of them emphasised that vehicular congestion doubles pollution. So, controlling vehicular pollution is the most important.

The wider the road, the more severe the traffic jams. A two-lane road becomes traffic-free after two hours, a three-lane road after three hours, a four-lane road in four hours.

VANDITA MISRA: How much of Delhi is affected by the car-owning population?

GOPAL RAI: For a population of 2 crore, there are around 20 lakh registered cars. But when this small number of 20 lakh is on the roads, it occupies the maximum amount of space. Sixty people sit in one bus and sixty people are on the road in cars. There is a bus standing and then there are 60 cars standing. So, imagine the amount of space they occupy. If this space is reduced, it will bring about major regulation in the traffic system.

SHAILAJA BAJPAI: What will be the role of the Centre in the odd-even scheme?

GOPAL RAI: The role of the Centre is on aspects such as law and order, which comes under it. Arvind (Kejriwal) ji had met the Home Minister and we have put forward the entire issue, the aim behind this, why we want to do this. We need cooperation from him because the traffic police is not with the state government. We can see positive cooperation at this stage. The traffic police is participating in all meetings that are being held.

The peripheral roads in the east and west have to be constructed because they have a role to play in controlling pollution. If vehicles which do not have to enter Delhi can ply outside, it can also help in controlling pollution.
When the NGT had put a ban on vehicles which were over10 years old, even at that time, meetings had been held among transport departments of UP, Haryana and Delhi. We had also met Nitin Gadkari. He has committed that the eastern and western peripheral expressways will be completed in 400 days.

Secondly, we are going to meet the railways minister today. In Delhi, EMU trains operate which people from NCR use. And in Delhi, there is a circular rail track which most people don’t know about. Just like local trains form Mumbai’s lifeline, such a line exists in Delhi. But the maintenance and frequency are poor. We are also conducting research on this. I am meeting the railways minister to increase the frequency of these trains and for their modernisation.

AMRITH LAL: Will cycle rickshaws be integrated into the last mile connectivity system?

GOPAL RAI: Cycle rickshaws are already running, they are there. But they are not part of the long-term plan, we want to replace them with battery rickshaws. I am not in favour of the idea of a man physically carrying a man somewhere. So they will be shifted to battery rickshaws. But this is not the solution. The solution is—if you want to stay fit and keep the world around you healthy —then you must use bicycles.

AMITAV RANJAN: But the concept of bicycles has not exactly worked in the capital yet.

GOPAL RAI: The bicycle plan was just implemented at eight locations. That is not going to work. We need to implement the plan in at least 1,000 places. Also, cycle stands need to be right outside the metro/bus stand in your colony, where you can park your cycle and take it the next morning by swiping a card.

MAYURA JANWALKAR: What other steps have been decided by the steering committee on curbing pollution caused by private vehicles?

SATYENDAR JAIN: First, it is not only about even and odd. We are going to do everything to check the level of pollution in Delhi. Like for the issue of construction-related dust, we had a meeting with senior officials about monitoring the construction sites in the city on a weekly basis. For the burning of leaves, we said we will fine the Section Officer R5,000 so that it becomes his responsibility to ensure such a thing doesn’t happen again. So if there is a fire (burning of leaves) on the streets, then the sanitary inspector will be fined.

Also, we want to ensure that cars drive in lanes in order to reduce travel time from one place to another—this will check pollution automatically.

We have also made an app which will enable you to send us a picture of, say, visible pollution from a factory chimney.

The government cannot be present everywhere, we are trying to involve the public. Under the Swachh Delhi campaign, we have received 40,000 complaints. The moment there is action on one complaint, people feel confident that this government is doing something. I am not sure if we will get 100/100 marks, but 80 is good too, it is better than zero.

MAYURA JANWALKAR: You had tweeted your email address asking people for suggestions. What kind of suggestions have you received?

Satyendar Jain: We have received over 4,000 suggestions. A large number of people have suggested lane driving. So we are planning to run buses in the bus lane. We are planning this from January 1, we are marking out bus lanes across the capital. In Mumbai, everyone drives in lanes, but in Delhi you never know who will turn left or who will take a right. Delhi has wide roads but still there are traffic jams. There is no discipline.

UNNI RAJEN SHANKER: Scooters and other vehicles run on existing cycling tracks. How do you plan to tackle that? I would not feel safe cycling on a Delhi road.

SATYENDAR JAIN: Sixty-seventy per cent of those killed in Delhi’s road accidents are pedestrians and cyclists. If we promote the use of cycles without making cycling on roads safe, this number will increase dramatically.

Today only the poor die in cycle accidents, the day a rich person dies, the society will not be able to bear it. Riding a cycle is a compulsion, not a choice, in Delhi today. In Europe, no one dares to enter cycle tracks, there is so much discipline. Here, no one talks about discipline. Today motorcycles and cars run on cycle tracks. You will say that the police have to look after this. But the police cannot be everywhere. If there are 50 lakh drivers in Delhi, you cannot have 50 lakh policemen. Enforcement happens through people’s discipline.

So we are redesigning the roads. Today the problem is that the streets are designed according to cars. So on a 60-metre road there is enough space for cars to run but not for pedestrians. It is like using distilled water in factories, but drainage water for drinking.

PRITHA CHATTERJEE: Most cities abroad study the air quality data and issue advisories. The pollution levels have been very high even now, so why aren’t you issuing advisories immediately to tell people what to do now, before January 1?

GOPAL RAI: Who listens to or reads advisories? It is published in newspapers, but no one reads them. Bodies like the Delhi Pollution Control Committee have been issuing alerts, but people don’t register these things. But yes in the future we plan to do this. The Delhi Pollution Control Committee will take samples and test them in labs.

SATYENDAR JAIN: We plan to display the lab results on screens across the city. Today people do not know the extent of pollution. It is difficult to interpret figures and numbers. So we need to simplify things and tell people that this is the level of pollution and this is what it should be.

APURVA: Implementing the odd-even plan requires cooperation from several different agencies, including those of the Centre like the DDA and Home Ministry. How are the co-ordination and response working?

SATYENDAR JAIN: We’re meeting everyone. Delhi Police special commissioner had met us this week. We’re talking to him every day. I don’t think coordination is an issue.

MAYURA JANWALKAR: What are the biggest challenges in front of the steering committee?

SATYENDAR JAIN: Right now the challenge is to decide who all should be exempted from this (odd-even rule). There are many demands to exempt women drivers, physically handicapped, police vans, ambulances etc but we will not give in to all. Cars have both advantages and disadvantages. One of the disadvantages is that you have detached yourself from public life. They will now get a shock when they travel in buses and ask people for time and directions.

We’ve created a world in which we get out from our homes in cars, then go to office. We don’t meet anyone, except the same people in clubs. We have no space for unknown people in our lives, we don’t want to meet anyone. This is an opportunity for society to grow, to travel in buses and cars and become humans.

Mayura Janwalkar: Is the penalty for the odd-even formula being discussed?

SATYENDAR JAIN: People are saying the fine should be between Rs 2,000- 10,000.

APURVA: But how is it possible to enforce? Because the traffic police is not with you.

SATYENDAR JAIN: You should make a distinction between the government and the police. Government makes the law and police have to implement it. Once it’s a law, they will have to follow it. There is no choice. There is no anarchy here that the police won’t follow the law.

Coomi Kapoor: Don’t you think the corruption among the police will go up?

SATYENDAR JAIN: Why will this happen? We’re anyway thinking of both penalty and impounding in which we’ll sit them down and give them a lecture on why it’s wrong. We’ll use volunteers for this who will torture them in a different way by giving them get-well-soon flowers Munnabhai MBBS style.

Transcribed by Aditi Vatsa and Aranya Shankar

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