Pollution control

Why the odd-even rationing of Delhi's road space is a worthwhile experiment

Sceptics of the Delhi government's ambitious plan to combat air pollution forget that the right to non-toxic air precedes the right to drive.

Last week, the Delhi government announced several measures to combat the hazardous levels of air pollution in the national capital. These include steps to reduce the 80 daily deaths owing to the current spike in cardiopulmonary emergencies in Delhi’s hospitals.

It also declared some medium and long-term actions, such as shutting down one coal power plant and possibly another; raising of vehicle and fuel emissions standards in just one year (a very bold move); limiting operating hours and enforcing emission standards for diesel trucks entering Delhi; adding more bus and Metro services; taking steps to reduce road dust, and the open burning of trash, leaves, and other biomass in Delhi.

What intrigues me is the chatterati's single-minded focus on the move to take odd or even licence plated cars off the streets on alternate days. They are posting articles on why such rationing of road space won’t work, or how car owners will rush to buy cheap used cars that will be even more polluting.

Many conveniently ignored the fact that this is a 15-day emergency measure, that no rich man is likely to buy another car for eight out of 15 days that he won’t be able to drive his primary car. Those complaining seem to include entitled upper class folks who forget that driving is not a right but a privilege, that the right to non-toxic air precedes the right to drive. They have no idea how bad Delhi’s air is right now and what it’s doing to our bodies.

Considered move

Even if this measure became permanent at a future date (after due analysis and debate), it is unlikely to happen without scaling up public transportation, in certain zones before others, and during certain hours.

Designed right, it will accompany disincentives for diesel (which emits seven-and-a-half times more harmful particular matter than petrol), reclaiming sidewalks for pedestrians, bike lanes, and a much higher cost of car ownership – by charging, for instance, an annual registration fee that rises steeply for two or more cars in a household, raising parking fees, limiting and enforcing parking in designated spaces, etc.

To deter people from buying a second car to beat driving restrictions, its license plate could be given the same last digit as their first car. More options might become possible in due course, such as congestion pricing in certain zones and issuing citations via traffic cameras. That some devious little minds may find ways to beat the system is hardly a good argument against trying to redesign our transport systems and urban spaces.

Will there be some problems in implementing the 15-day even/odd policy? Surely. But given the public health emergency on our hands, this option simply has to be tried. It has worked as an emergency measure against air pollution in many world cities.

Great opportunity

Notably, 55% of Delhi’s population lives within 500 metres of major roads, so their wintertime exposure to vehicular pollution is especially high. About 25% of all rides in Delhi happen on private cars and two-wheelers. Yet these private vehicles monopolise our shared spaces and cause disproportionately higher pollution. If private vehicles aren’t allowed on alternate days for a fortnight, at most 13% more riders will have to get around like how the other 75% do today – via 40 lakh rides on buses, 25 lakh on the Metro, taxis, auto-rickshaws, bicycles, on foot, etc.

Why not see this as an opportunity to find out how our public transportation needs to scale up and where, and how/if that could be combined with some form of road space rationing? Besides, even if we see only 30% fewer cars on these even/odd days, it will still reduce traffic congestion in Delhi. Traffic will flow more easily, reducing emissions due to idling in traffic jams, allowing buses to move faster, and kicking up less dust. People may even discover carpooling. Let’s measure what it does to our city. Let’s experiment.

Again: Driving is not a right, it’s a privilege. It has a social cost. We need to quit empathising with those inconvenienced by this emergency measure, because their daily driving causes a lot worse than inconvenience to our lungs. When 40% of our kids are failing lung capacity tests (with irreversible lung damage), it’s time to try various measures and see what works – and adapt.

Of course, I wish the Delhi government had acted sooner and done even more. For instance, it decided not to issue health advisories, nor safeguard vulnerable groups with free or low-cost pollution masks (e.g., traffic cops, auto-drivers, street vendors), nor make LPG cylinders easily available to the migrant poor who end up burning wood and coal. This is a shame. But politics is the art of the possible, as I realised afresh watching the politicians and the bureaucrats at the Delhi secretariat leading up to this announcement. I think it will go a long way in raising public awareness of air pollution and opening the door for the next round of difficult, unpopular, yet necessary initiatives.

Namit Arora is leading a task force on air pollution at the Delhi Dialogue Commission, a think tank of the Delhi government.

This article first appeared on blog.shunya.net

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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

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During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.