If after more than three decades of Chinese growth, Beijing recorded high air pollution levels, then New Delhi achieved the ignominy in much lesser time sans the growth.
In Delhi too, like many other cities, vehicular emissions, road transport in particular, add to the high air pollution levels. Emulating other countries—Chile, Mexico, Ecuador, China—we will restrict the usage of vehicles via a modified odd-even formula, beginning new year. Good intentions blend with desperation to do something, even if we do not know what to do, and a belief pervades that we will learn as we go along, and perhaps stumble upon a solution within a fortnight.
Consensus has it that the solutions like the odd-even ones are short-term. But as long-term thinking is not our wont, the debate over Delhi’s pollution crisis became confined to the proposed formula. The locus did not widen beyond Delhi and did not examine our transportation model as such, if we have one.
Transportation is much more than passengers commuting or freight moving from one place to another; it affects economic growth, impacts environment, and impinges on social progress. We are yet to attempt understanding the interplay between various dimensions of a transportation network, let alone designing a suitable one. Moreover, pork barrel politics has always played a major part in development of our transportation routes. As a result, India has a sub-par logistics network, an agglomeration of various modes of transport built by myriad agencies.
The link between economic growth and transportation is quite strong: a road or rail, for instance, can connect rural areas to markets and alleviate poverty; businesses can shift near a transportation network, provide employment and increase incomes; most important, if the transport costs are lower in a region, the factories or even entire supply chains can move in that direction. Whereas high transport costs can often negate other advantages and render a country’s goods uncompetitive.
Within cities, the skewed provision of transport services leads to centralisation of economic activities in core areas and, consequently, of habitations over time. Thus, commuting becomes a herculean task in the congested traffic. Metro routes in Delhi and NCR have already altered residential patterns and raised property prices just as they are doing in Bangalore, Chennai and Jaipur.
We can plan conurbations, cities and villages only after selecting a development model, either small-is-beautiful or big-is-necessary, for diverse geographical regions. Designing a transport network would include many tradeoffs and justification of choices: selecting and mixing modes; up grading and retrofitting of the existing network; filling critical gaps; incentivising use of public transport by levying tolls and taxes; subsidising certain fuels; framing regulations for reducing emissions like efficiency standards or driving restrictions like the odd-even formula.
As of now, a chronic problem has turned acute; and formulae, quickfixes will not work. Let us go beyond odd-even, beyond Delhi, look through a wider lens and design a new transportation policy. Then, we may have happier 'holi' ahead......................