ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Clearing the Air

Transport and Health

There has been much firefighting in Delhi in the name of clean air, but very little effort in understanding the causes of air pollution. So while we know that urban air pollution poses serious health risks to people living in Indian cities, we do not have a consensus on the details regarding the sources of the pollutants. This is mainly because central and local governments have not invested in setting up and funding an adequate number of research groups in academic institutions to conduct detailed studies around the country. Such neglect leads to knee-jerk reactions like the odd-even scheme.

In the latter half of 2015 newspapers reminded us frequently that people in Delhi were living in the “most polluted city in the world.” This was preceded by an article “Holding Your Breath in India” by the New York Times correspondent Gardiner Harris in May 2015. In the article Harris claimed that “often over chai and samosas at local dhabas or whiskey and chicken tikka at glittering embassy parties, we have obsessively discussed whether we are pursuing our careers at our children’s expense,” and because of the harm done to his son’s health his wife “sobbed for hours on the return flight to Delhi.” This also shamed the upper class Indians, especially the expatriates.

In response to this state of affairs, acti­vists and opinion makers demanded “drastic” actions and urgently. The Government of Delhi came to their rescue by mandating that between 1 and 15 January 2016, only even-numbered cars will be allowed to operate on even days and odd-numbered cars on odd days. All ­motorcycles and cars driven by women (without men as passengers) were exempted from this ruling. The issue was debated extensively over noisy debates on TV and social and print media, where the same four or five “experts” were quoted almost every day. There was little sober discussion, analysis of facts as we know them or even a considered analysis of the effect of such policies over time in other cities around the world. Though the atmospheric pollution did not seem to change much, anecdotal evidence suggests that congestion on roads may have reduced. However, the Government of Delhi and many newspapers declared the experiment a success. Hopefully an objective analysis of the experiment will be available at some point.

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