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Why Mumbai is choking

By Darryl D'Monte

Every progressive city has shown that improving public transport is the best way to clean up the air. Mumbai, on the other hand, is geared towards providing 55 flyovers, sea links and coastal highways to the 9% of the population that uses private vehicles. Surely these are examples of topsy-turvy priorities, says Darryl D'Monte

The long series of articles titled 'The Poisoning of Mumbai' in the city supplement of The Indian Express recently has proved shocking in more ways than one. It is fairly common knowledge that the air in the city is getting from bad to worse, mainly due to increasing traffic. However, the series cites the western suburb of Bandra - where this columnist happens to live -- as the worst polluted area in the entire city.

As anyone who has the slightest acquaintance with Bandra will readily vouch, this self-styled 'Queen of the Suburbs' has till today been considered one of the least polluted, thanks in no small measure to the coastline which extends through its length. Indeed, even today, one can savour the cleaner environs as one enters Bandra from the main arterial road running through the western suburbs. This is bound to make all Mumbaikars fear that if Bandra's plight is so bad, there is something terrible in store for them.

According to a study cited in the newspaper by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) in Nagpur, Bandra reels under a load of 400 tonnes of pollutants a year - four times greater than at Churchgate in the central business district of south Mumbai, as well as more congested areas like Parel and Sion in central Mumbai. Considering that Bandra has no manufacturing of any kind, it is surprising that Parel, in the heart of the cotton mill area, is better off, even granting that many mills have either closed or are running at a fraction of their original capacity. For that matter, Sion has a major artery which connects to the Eastern Express highway and sees heavy goods traffic, which Bandra is free from.

The study deals with "suspended particulate matter", a deadly mix of dust, soot and chemical compounds that has been the bane of all cities in the country, due to reckless urban growth, lax controls on polluting industries and, not least, spiralling traffic. In smaller towns, two- and three-wheelers are the biggest culprits in the virtual absence of public transport worth the name.

It is not clear where NEERI has obtained its data. If it is from the Municipal Corporation's monitoring stations, the findings are suspect - as a subsequent article in the Express series itself points out. Earlier this year, municipal air pollution scientists admitted to a coordination committee appointed by the Mumbai High Court that two major stations were unreliable due to inadequate supply of power. On their part, the state government and Maharashtra Pollution Control Board have been reluctant to pay their share for five automatic air quality monitoring stations because of the high import duties, despite the World Bank's willingness to advance a loan of over Rs 5 crore.

However, there is hardly any point quibbling over which area of Greater Mumbai is worst off as far as air pollution is concerned. The entire city is engulfed in a pall of pollution, which worsens during the cooler weather at the end of the year. The city's geography is much to blame: being a peninsula, with the central business district at the southernmost tip, there is a lemming-like rush of commuters in that direction every morning and in the reverse direction in the evenings. In the island city, there are only three or four main arterial roads, which branch out into express highways in the suburbs and extended suburbs. Despite efforts by city planners, there is still a steady stream of heavy goods vehicles in and out of the city as well, thanks mainly to the port and refineries on the eastern coast.

Mumbai, which prides itself on being 'a metaphor for modern India', has been upstaged by Delhi as far as cleaning up the air is concerned, even though Delhi has many more motorised vehicles (including two-wheelers) than the three other metros. This, in spite of the BEST bus service, which justifiably prides itself as the best in the country. Only six years ago, the WHO listed the national capital as one of the world's ten most polluted cities and vehicles accounted for 70% of the contaminants. Last year, it won the US Department of Energy first Clean Cities International Partner of the Year award for "bold efforts to curb air pollution and support alternative fuel initiatives".

The facts speak for themselves: carbon monoxide levels are down 32% and sulphur dioxide 39% since 1997. For this, we have to thank the late Anil Agarwal, founder of the Centre for Science & Environment (CSE), and his colleagues. In 1996, CSE filed a public interest litigation, demanding that Delhi's citizens had the right to breathe fresh air. This resulted in the Supreme Court setting up a monitoring committee and passing a number of orders. The most significant of these was the order in 1998 to change over in phases to compressed natural gas (CNG) for all public transport - buses, taxis and autorickshaws.

It was by no means easy to get such a radical measure through. There were powerful lobbies, backed by politicians, which blocked the switchover at every stage. The diesel lobby moved heaven and earth, arguing that low-sulphur diesel was a cleaner fuel than CNG. Since the truck and automobile manufacturers had invested heavily in diesel engines, they stood to lose the most. They and others argued that those who converted diesel and petrol engines to CNG had bribed the authorities. To add to the confusion, there was a terrible shortage of CNG stations, which forced rickshaw drivers to queue overnight to fill their three-wheelers. Eventually, by 2002, all public transport vehicles were converted to CNG and several other measures, like removing lead from petrol and phasing out eight-year-old commercial vehicles were introduced as well. Delhi is by far a cleaner city as a consequence.

Mumbai has been trying, fitfully, to emulate Delhi's example. The Maharashtra government set up a committee under V M Lal, which did make valuable suggestions, many of which have unfortunately not been implemented. Taxis and autorickshaws have converted to CNG. But there are still too many two-stroke autos, which give out higher emissions. NEERI recommends that these be replaced by the more efficient four-stroke engines. The Mumbai High Court has ordered the BEST to get 600 new CNG buses by 2008; only 50 have been converted so far, which will double by the beginning of next year.

The switch to CNG by old heavy commercial vehicles is proving a huge problem, with owners repeatedly threatening strikes, which choke off the supply of fruit, vegetables and other essentials to the metropolis. In March, the High Court postponed the deadline to the end of this year, with the proviso that orders for CNG or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) retro fitment kits - for which there are only three dealers at present - must be placed with approved agencies by the end of June. All such vehicles which are over eight years old, numbering some 23,761, will have to switch or get off the roads. To change from diesel to clean fuel costs Rs 3 lakh, which many truck owners cannot afford.

This is a dilemma which is familiar in many conflicts between environment and (often so-called) development. In this case, does one attend to the needs of transporters or look to the good of the larger community - here, the millions of citizens who have to inhale toxic air? In some cases, the dilemma can get even more complicated when, for instance, the Supreme Court ordered the closure of industries because of the pollution they caused in Delhi, throwing many thousands of workers out of their jobs. Anil Agarwal took the position that one should safeguard the interests of the larger number of people who stand to benefit. Ideally, there ought to be some sort of compromise in such situations, but this is easier said than done.

All measures which seek to improve the quality of air in a city have to be accompanied by a dramatic increase in the supply of public transport. Without this, people will continue to use private vehicles, most of which are poorly maintained and thus pollute freely. Mumbai has the distinction of possessing excellent public transport, with the best local train system in the country, carrying some 5-6 million passengers a day, and the BEST. As much as 87% of peak hour travellers take a train or bus. However, with Greater Mumbai registering a population of 12 million in the 2001census, these services are strained to breaking point.

With the second phase of the World Bank-funded Urban Transportation finally under way - after a delay of a dozen years - things ought to improve somewhat. This scheme prioritises the expansion of the railway network. However, this has to be accompanied by stringent measures to reduce the number of private vehicles, which in Mumbai are mainly cars, from entering the island city. Even a few years ago, it was estimated that 125,000 cars travel from Bandra, just outside the island city, to the commercial district of Nariman Point every day.

Most roads in the central business district have parking charges but the one-time tax that automobile owners pay covers only a fraction of the cost of building and maintaining roads. In the suburbs, on the other hand, new buildings spring up every other day without adequate room for parking. The municipal authorities ought to impose strict laws to ensure that cooperative housing societies provide sufficient parking space. Since motorists freely park on roads, buses - which carry far more people with greater energy efficiency - find it difficult to ply. There is also no reason why measures like restricting the entry of cars into the island city by number plates on certain days in the week as well as only permitting cars with three or four passengers to encourage pooling should not be introduced.

Other cities in the world have demonstrated that, with the right political will, they can control the use of cars. The most commonly cited instance is Singapore, which auctions the right to own a private vehicle, to begin with. Indeed, the cost of the licence can actually surpass the price of the car in some instances. The authorities also resort to electronic road pricing, by which any car which enters the central business district is automatically charged a toll on a meter installed in a vehicle. London followed suit not long ago, despite concerted resistance from car-owners. At the same time, Singapore has excellent subway and bus services, which make it possible for owners to leave their cars at home.

A city in the developing world which has shown that the provision of public transport is the best way to clean up the air is Curitiba in Brazil. It relies on an extensive network of buses, which have reserved lanes and stations where one buys tickets in advance. Bogotá in Colombia, on the other hand, has declared Sundays are out of bounds for cars on certain arteries, which has made this sprawling city much more people-friendly. European cities have already made strides in pedestrianising city centres and making public transport economically attractive.

By contrast, Mumbai is moving in the opposite direction. It is doing everything possible to cater to the 9% of the population which uses private vehicles. The 55 flyovers, sea links and coastal highways that have been completed in recent years or are still being built are all examples of topsy-turvy priorities. The main culprit is the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation, which is constructing these facilities for owners of motorised vehicles - which contribute 60% of the city's air pollution - and is completely ignoring all planners and experts who are pleading for better public transport instead.

InfoChange News & Features, July 2004