Air quality on day of Janta Curfew

The biggest impact of the Janta Curfew in my opinion may be in demonstrating to the average Mumbaikar and policy makers and media the efficacy of forcibly shutting down the city (read cars on roads) on days of severe air pollution.

In a television debate a month back on ET Now, which was in response to an exceptionally bad AQI over a few days in Mumbai I had raised a number of important points along with the other panelists. One of the most important was at the end asking for a Graded Response Action Plan being rolled out ASAP to counter such events.

At 12:20 I comment on the terrible coast road project.

17:15 onwards on whether Metro will solve the problem and about Climate Change

What is GRAP? It is a series of decisions to be taken based on the severity of the AQI. Read this article from Delhi where this measure has been first initiated.

In context of Mumbai the first such response would be a radical curtailment of vehicles on the roads on days of bad AQI, thus effectively calling for a partial or total shutdown. This would not hurt the economy as much as it would be made out to be and would not halt the movement of trains and buses. The bottom of the pyramid which has been most impacted during the corona crisis would be least affected in this case since they anyways do not use cars. Those affected would be individuals who only travel by cars and that segment can sit home and relax as they are doing now. And not be impacted financially in anyways.

Why should it require a virus to understand such a point?

Janta curfew adds to the evidence that the economy and the people are so much better off with severe curbs on private vehicles, which are a few peoples convenience and everyone’s (including those few) inconvenience.

Bad AQI in Mumbai is invariably the result of atmospheric conditions. The sum total of emissions spewed out by the 2.5 million odd vehicles on Mumbai’s roads remains a constant on any given day. Whether the emissions will result in bad AQI is a function of temperature, wind, humidity and other such factors.

Beyond the complex details, there are days when the atmospheric conditions support the flushing out of these toxic emissions and there are other days when the atmospheric conditions do not support the flushing out and instead allow the emissions to accumulate over the city thus exposing the whole population to a very deadly cocktail of pollutants.

It is for days like this that a Graded Response Action Plan needs to roll out as per a pre-decided drill which is known to every citizen and agreed upon. The foremost of these measures would be a radical curb on private motorized transport, the number one cause of emissions in the city. What is my data source for this claim? How do I validate? A day like Janta Curfew helps make the point without having to be burdened with counter arguments asking one to validate claims. The same city that sees unsatisfactory to poor range most times saw crisp air quality. The only difference was no vehicles on the roads. I can pull in a lot of data from existing studies but the idea is to keep it simple and common sense.

AQI on 22.03.2020, day of Janta curfew

Atmospheric scientists know with a fair deal of accuracy in advance about days when the conditions will not be viable for a flushing out. It is the role of the policy makers lead by the Mayor and the Municipal Commissioner, which needs to make advance announcement of days when there would be severe curbs on movement of cars on the roads.

https://www.windy.com/-Embed-widget-on-page/widgets?19.119,72.924,11

If impact on the economy is a fear then those days which coincide with a Sunday or close about can easily be considered. There are easily 10 days during the winter when the severity is enough to classify the impact as a severe health risk. A GRAP determined forced shutdown would make a radical difference on those 10 days and give enormous relief to vulnerable segments.

And we do not need much resources to control cars on the roads. Singapore and London have done it all with the considerable support from Indian IT companies. You need ERP gantries on all important junctions and every car which crossed those on the red listed days would be charged Rs. 1000 per crossing or something like that. There are enough in the city for whom that is loose change and instead of that loose change going to alcohol companies and lifestyle it will be made available for a dedicated transport fund which would invest in public transport and overcoming deficits.

How serious is the problem of air pollution for Mumbai?

That question should not need an answer. Other panelists Bhagwan Kesbhat and Vivek Chattopadhyay very well explained but the answer has been available for more than two decades. I am reminded of the Vinay Mohan Lal Committee more than two decades back and the number of measures taken and suggested. Since then a huge growth in vehicles, increased size of the city and an enormous increase in the number of kilometers traveled per day has wiped out and over ridden any gains.

Poor air quality impacts everybody and is a clear and present danger at all times unlike corona situation which is a once in a while passing storm. I have been calling the panic around corona a tamasha. If public health really was of concern then the public and the authorities acting on their behalf would have been doing so much more on real issues which matter. The mortality from poor air quality or more importantly DALY is far more serious an issue.

But GRAP is not enough.

The overall thinking and planning carried out by the government institutions which govern the city makes a difference. MMRDA and MCGM are the two cash rich city bodies which do two things, make policy and spend money. In both these aspects they have taken the worst kind of decisions over the past two decades. Decisions which have only lead to more motorised transport and result in poor AQI, which in turn necessitates GRAP. These are issues which have been discussed threadbare by numerous planners, policy makers and activists over the years. Everyone of them has warned of the consequences of the misdirected thinking of those who govern. Whether the decline of support to the public bus service or investments in projects like the coastal road or absence of UMTA and parking policy and much more.

At moments like the corona virus the Municipal Commissioner is seen and portrayed as a hero by the media. Any questioning at such a point would be (and would be seen as) inappropriate. But I don’t see any such discussions in non-crisis which holds decision makers accountable. Who will analyse the decisions taken over the past two decades? Bureaucrats and Mayors are unapproachable and consider themselves above panelists who appear and contribute for discussions.

The public on its part is a herd by now with little knowledge and inclination. The average educated elite persons political discourse, its vocabulary and syllabus is so limited as to make it impossible to engage them on such issues. They can only bang utensils (or be critical of such measures) and clap for the services of those who address the symptoms and are clueless about those who go after the underlying malaise. And they hold their views with fervour and self-righteousness. The political and administrative class couldn’t be happier.

Essential services?

People only understand post facto measures as essential. Doctors and nurses attending to patients. I would argue that the work I and my limited ilk does is far more essential and important but it goes poorly appreciated and rewarded. A lung physician at a top hospital in the city will rake in crores as income dealing with the problem and have properties and investments but as an activist dealing with preventing the problem I can never be sure of being able to pay myself a stable salary or run my small NGO or salaries of staff, far less own multiple properties as investments.

In 2015 I had written a blog called Equal Budgets for Equal Streets, which was then carried as an article in Times of India, Mumbai Edition. The article was in the context of the Equal Streets event (for which I was one of the early contributor and organiser)

Article in Time of India, December 2014

Urban transport policy has been an integral part of my efforts as an activist over the same past two decades. But that is not the only area of involvement intricately linked with air quality. My successful efforts at saving large tracts of mangrove forests beginning from my immediate neighborhood in the beginning of the last decade was pivoted on the argument of better air quality and flood mitigation.

Then there is the issue of solid waste management. The city has been following a ruinous model of pick and dump soaked in corruption and malpractices. The garbage burns on the dumps and millions of litres of diesel is burnt annually to transport all that waste. Again enormous contributions by some of us but the same Municipal Commissioners (office not individual) who are seen as heroes in such crises take all the wrong decisions and insidiously and invisibly cause slow damage over a decade.

Now on cars

Cars are drawing away the essential vitality of our urban areas. Any arguments to curb their use are seen as anti-development and Luddite in India. All while the world is moving ahead. Instead of designing a next generation of cities we are neither here nor there. Cars are private goods whose profits go to a few while the negative effects are borne by everyone. Those negative effects need to be priced just like one would fine spitting or urinating in public. Road space is a public space owned by everyone and anyone who uses more of it should more for it. Parking policy is scoffed at but people cannot be taking up public space without paying for it. Similarly cars in motion are causing congestion and air pollution and need to be fined for it. In the past few days BEST – the public bus service has seen a rapid improvement in its turnaround time because there is less traffic. If a bus can turn around in 30 mins rather than 60 mins it can do two rounds and transport twice the number of people. We need more people transported per hour not cars.

Cars and air pollution are bigger dangers than corona virus. Hope the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister will be looking into this post the corona storm.

4 thoughts on “Air quality on day of Janta Curfew

  1. Well written and articulated Rishi. The need for long term systemic multi-dimensional approaches as opposed to short term uni-dimensional actions/fixes has to change for sustainable city environment. I also liked your articulation of immediate solutions that can be implemented, as you said, “as-of-yesterday”

    1. Thanks Ashish! Post pandemic hopefully we will have a society more interested in responding to public health issues more glaring and in the face than the corona.

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