Toxic Air, Mounting Waste, Unsafe Streets: Ahead of Polls, Voters Want Lawmakers to Make Delhi Liveable Again

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New Delhi: An empty stretch of unlit road, a city that’s chronically short of breath, and a national capital that wants to hide its capital shame of mounds of garbage that are now competing with the Taj Mahal in stature. Our search for answers to why Delhi is dropping in the rankings on the Global Liveability Index are not hard to find.

Dr Richa Chaudhary and her husband Dr Pankaj Solanki, who live in north-west Delhi’s Rohini locality, are a successful and financially secure couple. But they are disillusioned. Like lakhs of Delhiites, the seasonal peak in pollution hits them hard. Their four-year-old son has medical complications and they move him out of the city every time it chokes. “We have been doing this for the last three years. We send him away for a month at least. When he returns, within 24 hours his problems resurface,” says Dr Pankaj.

Medical experts support this. “Around 20 years ago, there were seasonal problems, and we were seasonal doctors. Now we have these problems throughout the year. That is the change we have seen. And this is attributable to the environment. We see black patches inside the lungs of young people. Including those who do not smoke,” says Dr Bharat Gopal, director of the National Chest Centre in Naraina and a leading pulmonologist.

Trouble in the air

A study by Local Circles, a social networking site for civic cooperation, shows that at least 40% respondents in the survey done by it wish to leave the capital if the central and Delhi government continue to have the same approach towards pollution. Thirty-one per cent said they would equip themselves with air purifiers and stay on. The air quality index this week has ranged between 250 and 300, far above the acceptable limit of 50. The reasons are many. Atul Goyal, president of United Residents Joint Action of Delhi (URJA), the apex body of over 2,500 resident welfare associations (RWAs) in the city, says what is needed is a proactive and collaborative effort. “There is vehicular pollution, there is dust from construction and garbage, and industrial pollutants. A lot of the above can be tackled by the Delhi government,” he says. “All cars and heavy vehicles have to have PUC (pollution under control) certificates. This has to be enforced by the Delhi transport department.”

Environmentalists say the political response – whether it is the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government’s odd-even car-rationing scheme or measures by the central government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – are all inadequate. The AAP’s election promise to reduce air pollution by a third and the BJP’s to set up smog towers, leaves them unimpressed. “The entire political conversation gets reduced to smog towers. It is not a regulatory measure in any part of the world. We have seen it as a recreational measure around parks in China or the Netherlands. But this is not a mitigation measure,” says Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director (research and advocacy) at the Centre for Science and Environment.

It is important to cut emissions at the source of pollution which is not being done, say experts. “With the same amount of money that is proposed to be spent on smog towers, one can replace the chulhas (smoke-emitting stoves) and incentivise small-scale units to change their boilers or use cleaner fuel,” observes Roychowdhury, saying that would give more value for the money spent.

Unsafe in city

There are other reasons besides Delhi’s air quality that has made it drop six places, to 118th, in a survey done for 140 cities as per the Global Liveability Index 2019. Thirty-four-year-old Diksha Sethi is a digital marketing professional who works in Delhi’s upmarket urban village Shahpur Jaat. She drives to work even though the one-and-a half-hour journey is physically and mentally taxing. “At any given opportunity, your personal space is violated. The experience has not been good. Far from it. There are overcrowded buses. The Metro is at my doorstep but I will not take it. I use my vehicle not out of choice but because I feel it is safer. It is at my disposal,” she tells us.

Experts believe that even though law and order is outside the purview of the Delhi government, it can do to make the city-state safer. “After the Nirbhaya case, the least the government could do was to have its own record of dark spots. Illuminating the PWD roads is the direct responsibility of the state government,” says URJA president Atul Goyal.

Seven years ago, students of Delhi’s Kamala Nehru College took to the streets to protest the gang-rape and brutal murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student, who was later dubbed Nirbhaya by the media. Women here and at the nearby Lady Shri Ram College still say they feel unsafe.

“I think the Metro is safe. The problem is when you get off the Metro. There are no cameras. There are lonely stretches. And hoodlums are encouraged because they know no one is watching them,” says Shambhavi, a second-year student of Kamala Nehru College.

The fact that stalking as a crime is not registered and taken seriously is also a grouse. “A boy followed me. He did not do anything, but he kept following me. The police did not do anything,” says Divya, another student of the college.

Some distance away, the lone all-woman police control room (PCR) van outside the Lady Shri Ram College offers little security to young women who want better-lit roads and more marshals, across Delhi. Charvi, a first-year student, tells us that there have been many complaints at the back gate of the college of men masturbating. But nothing has been done to stop them. “They were seen flashing. That is not appropriate in a public area. And we have discussed this with our teachers. They asked us to carry pepper spray and be alert,” she says.

Need for smart streets

Upgrade of urban infrastructure and boosting capacity in public transport has a direct link with reducing vehicular pollution and improving safety, experts observe. It is almost like killing two birds with one stone. It is a huge gap and an opportunity for the next government in Delhi. Much more collaborative effort with the Centre is needed, say experts. The idea is to work in collaboration and not be at loggerheads. The end result is to make Delhi more liveable.

The concept of modern street designs becomes extremely important in the objective of making Delhi safer, urban planners say. Amit Bhatt, executive director (integrated transport) at the non-profit World Resources Institute (WRI) India, laments the poor street designs in the country and links this directly to the issue of safety. “We are designing streets like highways. That is not how it should be. Urban streets require spaces for pedestrians, for vending activities and for natural surveillance,” he says.

There has to be a paradigm change in the way streets are designed here, experts say. “Streets are the conduits; they connect. And safe and vibrant streets are going to improve the liveability quotient of Delhi and that has a link with air pollution, making people more receptive to walking than taking their cars, and safety,” says Bhatt.

Public transport continues to be the weakest link in checking pollution, particularly vehicular pollution, says the Centre for Science and Environment. “Bus transport has stagnated. If buses have to be phased out, by 2022 we may not even have a bus left in the city,” says Anumita Roychowdhury.

Trash talk

The hunt for reasons behind Delhi’s poor ranking on the Global Liveability Index also brings us to east Delhi. Hazy pictures capture the smog that engulfs the city and also a mountain of garbage in Ghazipur. The 213-foot high waste heap is a source of delight for vermin and birds of prey. This massive landfill reached its capacity in 2002 and was to be closed. But it’s still hosting garbage. The stench is unbearable, even deadly.

“There is rotting of the waste and there is methane gas. It is combustible gas. It catches fires spontaneously. Engineering intervention is required in this. Imagine the toxic waste and the fumes it has been generating for so many years. This is the air we are breathing,” says Roychoudhury.

Sanitation experts also say that removing mountain heaps of garbage isn’t easy. But there is a lot that can be done to improve the situation. “The city’s garbage has been coming here for three-and-a-half decades, waste-to-energy plants have been set up, and there should be more. There is a need for segregation of waste, and educating the people to do it,” says KS Mehra, former municipal commissioner of Delhi.

Delhi goes to polls on February 8. The city’s expectations are high. The narrative has to go beyond the basics of bijli-sadak-paani (electricity-roads-water) to the next level: quality of life. This has to be about making Delhi liveable once again, say Delhiites.

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