World's most polluted city takes a breather

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The Independent Online

India is the world champion for scenes of chaos and mayhem, and yesterday it provided a new variation on this hoary theme as millions of commuters desperate to get to work crammed on to the roofs of buses, squeezed in absurd numbers into miniature auto-rickshaws or even took to the roads in ancient two-wheeled horse-drawn tongas.

India is the world champion for scenes of chaos and mayhem, and yesterday it provided a new variation on this hoary theme as millions of commuters desperate to get to work crammed on to the roofs of buses, squeezed in absurd numbers into miniature auto-rickshaws or even took to the roads in ancient two-wheeled horse-drawn tongas.

But it was all in an excellent cause. And even while travellers fumed and seethed and the city limped along, there was grudging acceptance that once this massive hiccup was over things would be much better. Because this is the week that Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world, by some estimates the most polluted of all, took a decisive step in the direction of cleaner air.

The reason for the mess was that in line with a directive from the Supreme Court, from 1 April only buses, taxis or other public carriages that are fuelled by compressed natural gas (CNG) are allowed on the capital's roads.

The court's order was promulgated on 28 July 1998, but the city government has done little to implement it. Twelve thousand buses ply Delhi's roads: in May last year, the city's chief minister, Sheila Dixit, blithely assured the press that 10,000 CNG-fuelled buses would be on the roads by the end of March deadline. It was a wild and empty promise: Delhi woke up this week to find only 137 of Delhi Transport Corporation's buses converted to use the new fuel, out of a fleet of 1,118. Of the 6,600 buses that make up the bulk of the fleet, a bare 25 had been converted.

Autorickshaws ­ called "autos" here ­ fared better with one-third of the fleet already converted, and taxis likewise.

Confronted by an appalling crunch, the court eased matters slightly last week by allowing bus operators who had already placed "firm orders" for replacement vehicles or CNG conversion kits to continue operating with diesel until 30 September, but even this concession left Delhi with only a fraction of its requirement.

But among citizens and environmental experts there was little doubt about the need for drastic change. Until Sunday, Delhi's buses ran on diesel with sulphur content of 0.5 per cent ­ compared with a content of 0.005 per cent in "ultra-low sulphur diesel", in most of the West. Autos ran on adulterated petrol. Alongside the thousands of filthy lorries grinding through the city, they gave Delhi, like all the big cities of South Asia, its unmistakable and permanent pall of brown smog.

Air pollution was killing one person an hour in Delhi, nearly 9,000 people every year. Year on year, asthma cases bounded 900 per cent from 1998 to 1999.

The court's order was a first step back from the brink but, though politicians never failed to pay lip service to environmental improvement, they have done almost nothing to bring it about. One of India's most effective ecologists, Anil Agarwal, who chairs the Centre for Science and the Environment, a non-governmental organisation, said: "When it comes to pollution control, it is only the hammer of the judges of the Supreme Court that seems to push the government to do anything. Without creating a crisis, first for the auto industry last year and now for the government, it seems that no action gets taken. It is almost as if the government has abdicated all its responsibilities for pollution control and public health."

The government's failure is what the citizens of Delhi are now paying for. But the change, however painfully brought about, is near miraculous in the apocalyptic context of the developing world's cities. Salute, if you will, a very rare but welcome event: an environmental story from the Indian sub-continent that is only partly about misery.

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