choking cities

Indian cities should discourage cars completely, not just restrict them

Delhi's odd-even experiment will be messy, contested and incremental, but restrictions on using cars are here to stay.

The odd-even rationing of roads in Delhi has got everyone talking about air pollution, public transport, carpooling and parking charges. It’s amusing that issues that until recently were confined to policy and academic circles have suddenly entered the public discourse. While this reaffirms the belief that an issue’s proximity to Delhi is directly proportionate to its media coverage, it doesn’t change the reality that the air pollution levels in the capital and other cities are indicative of a public health crisis. And it’s a crisis that has been created by placing our relentless appetite for private automobiles above human interest.

Automobiles dominate our cities and our minds. “Traffic congestion” is part of everyday lexicon and building of flyovers is widely used to claim development in cities. Like the mythological demon that kept gobbling, the demands for uninterrupted traffic flow, wider roads and more flyovers remain unsatisfied.

Private automobiles have become dominant thanks to cheaper loans, lenient taxation, demand for free parking spaces and the absence of effective road-pricing mechanisms. “Car seva” remains the unofficial motto of our urban policies, putting a dent in the city’s budget while officials get criticised for not supplying enough essential “infrastructure” for smooth and fast traffic movement. The large number of litigations against the odd-even car use restrictions in Delhi and the bitter criticism of the capital’s Bus Rapid Transit System illustrate how the incumbent automobile regime resists any form of usage restrictions or re-prioritisation.

Here, there and everywhere

The space occupied by automobiles – moving or parked – is viewed as inevitable and legitimate over other urban activities such as play areas for children or street trading. A car or a motorbike are not only “utility vehicles” but are fast becoming personalised objects of cultural consumption. Popular media and automobile advertisements continue to portray automobiles as symbols of greater freedom and higher social status.

Ownership of an automobile brings a sense of entitlement for consuming increasingly more road space. We have fallaciously linked automobiles and the upgrade from a motorbike to a car as the only possible curve of social and economic progress. Similarly, a spurt in the private automobile sector is viewed as a pathway for economic growth. The automobile regime encompasses political, economic, social and cultural vested interests developed around the relentless consumption of automobile use.

The dominance of automobiles also affects other transport modes and access to public spaces. As automobiles appropriate more and more space, the use and quality of public transport and the share of walking and cycling in commuting declines. Even so, walking and cycling constitute 40% share in urban travel, according to the latest census.

Pedestrians and cyclists scavenge for road space. Jaywalking is not pleasant in most cities. Automobile-free areas, where one can walk freely, children can play carelessly or where the elderly can relax, are rare, gated, exclusive, and at times expensive.

Housing colonies, institutions, streets are infested with parked automobiles, each of them giving up on other activities to accommodate the vehicles. Soon, Gurgaon-like suburbs proliferating in cities around India will lock their residents into an automobile-centric culture, just like the residents of the low-density sprawling suburbs of the North American cities.

We live in cities made for automobiles, honking is an inevitable part of our urban soundscapes, and breathing the foul air emanating from automobiles completes our urban lives. While private automobiles are not solely responsible for air pollution, the dominance of the automobile regime severely affects the quality of urban life.

Long-term projections show that by 2050, the majority of urban travellers in India will depend on public transport of various forms including the para-transits, walking and cycling, carpools or car share if they become popular.

Future course

Despite high vehicle ownership, cities in industrialised countries have reversed their public policies and have started restricting the use of automobiles in one way or the other.

So how will the restrictions on automobile consumption become a political priority in India? Do we have political constituencies around promoting public transport today? Do people demand better buses – GPS-enabled, smart card-operated, etc. – instead of cheaper fuel for their private vehicles? Shouldn’t we have a Pradhan Mantri Rashtriya Shahari Footpath Yojana? Will cycling to work be incentivised in the Smart Cities Mission?

There is a silver lining. The problem of automobile dominance in the city affects the elite class, and that’s why there is such a hue and cry at the moment. Delhi’s odd-even car use restrictions have initiated politics of differential mobility on a large scale – a little niche to discuss alternative ways of moving around the city, a first step to dismantling the idea that car ownership gives you god-given rights to the road space.

The policy may not be completely rational and the government might not have the wherewithal to fully implement it initially. But let’s remember that public interventions in India are messy, contested and incremental.

The odd-even formula from Delhi will slowly get more people on board to understand that restrictions on the use of cars are here to stay. It will grow into two-wheeler restrictions, carpooling and, hopefully, better public transport integration.

As long as the Delhi government is keen to stay the course, these restrictions will become a reality in the capital and hopefully in many other Indian cities as well.

Rutul Joshi teaches urban planning at CEPT University, Ahmedabad.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

How sustainable farming practices can secure India's food for the future

India is home to 15% of the world’s undernourished population.

Food security is a pressing problem in India and in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), it is estimated that over 190 million people go hungry every day in the country.

Evidence for India’s food challenge can be found in the fact that the yield per hectare of rice, one of India’s principal crops, is 2177 kgs per hectare, lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil that have yield rates of 4263 kgs/hectare and 3265 kgs/hectare respectively. The cereal yield per hectare in the country is also 2,981 kgs per hectare, lagging far behind countries such as China, Japan and the US.

The slow growth of agricultural production in India can be attributed to an inefficient rural transport system, lack of awareness about the treatment of crops, limited access to modern farming technology and the shrinking agricultural land due to urbanization. Add to that, an irregular monsoon and the fact that 63% of agricultural land is dependent on rainfall further increase the difficulties we face.

Despite these odds, there is huge potential for India to increase its agricultural productivity to meet the food requirements of its growing population.

The good news is that experience in India and other countries shows that the adoption of sustainable farming practices can increase both productivity and reduce ecological harm.

Sustainable agriculture techniques enable higher resource efficiency – they help produce greater agricultural output while using lesser land, water and energy, ensuring profitability for the farmer. These essentially include methods that, among other things, protect and enhance the crops and the soil, improve water absorption and use efficient seed treatments. While Indian farmers have traditionally followed these principles, new technology now makes them more effective.

For example, for soil enhancement, certified biodegradable mulch films are now available. A mulch film is a layer of protective material applied to soil to conserve moisture and fertility. Most mulch films used in agriculture today are made of polyethylene (PE), which has the unwanted overhead of disposal. It is a labour intensive and time-consuming process to remove the PE mulch film after usage. If not done, it affects soil quality and hence, crop yield. An independently certified biodegradable mulch film, on the other hand, is directly absorbed by the microorganisms in the soil. It conserves the soil properties, eliminates soil contamination, and saves the labor cost that comes with PE mulch films.

The other perpetual challenge for India’s farms is the availability of water. Many food crops like rice and sugarcane have a high-water requirement. In a country like India, where majority of the agricultural land is rain-fed, low rainfall years can wreak havoc for crops and cause a slew of other problems - a surge in crop prices and a reduction in access to essential food items. Again, Indian farmers have long experience in water conservation that can now be enhanced through technology.

Seeds can now be treated with enhancements that help them improve their root systems. This leads to more efficient water absorption.

In addition to soil and water management, the third big factor, better seed treatment, can also significantly improve crop health and boost productivity. These solutions include application of fungicides and insecticides that protect the seed from unwanted fungi and parasites that can damage crops or hinder growth, and increase productivity.

While sustainable agriculture through soil, water and seed management can increase crop yields, an efficient warehousing and distribution system is also necessary to ensure that the output reaches the consumers. According to a study by CIPHET, Indian government’s harvest-research body, up to 67 million tons of food get wasted every year — a quantity equivalent to that consumed by the entire state of Bihar in a year. Perishables, such as fruits and vegetables, end up rotting in store houses or during transportation due to pests, erratic weather and the lack of modern storage facilities. In fact, simply bringing down food wastage and increasing the efficiency in distribution alone can significantly help improve food security. Innovations such as special tarpaulins, that keep perishables cool during transit, and more efficient insulation solutions can reduce rotting and reduce energy usage in cold storage.

Thus, all three aspects — production, storage, and distribution — need to be optimized if India is to feed its ever-growing population.

One company working to drive increased sustainability down the entire agriculture value chain is BASF. For example, the company offers cutting edge seed treatments that protect crops from disease and provide plant health benefits such as enhanced vitality and better tolerance for stress and cold. In addition, BASF has developed a biodegradable mulch film from its ecovio® bioplastic that is certified compostable – meaning farmers can reap the benefits of better soil without risk of contamination or increased labor costs. These and more of the company’s innovations are helping farmers in India achieve higher and more sustainable yields.

Of course, products are only one part of the solution. The company also recognizes the importance of training farmers in sustainable farming practices and in the safe use of its products. To this end, BASF engaged in a widespread farmer outreach program called Samruddhi from 2007 to 2014. Their ‘Suraksha Hamesha’ (safety always) program reached over 23,000 farmers and 4,000 spray men across India in 2016 alone. In addition to training, the company also offers a ‘Sanrakshan® Kit’ to farmers that includes personal protection tools and equipment. All these efforts serve to spread awareness about the sustainable and responsible use of crop protection products – ensuring that farmers stay safe while producing good quality food.

Interested in learning more about BASF’s work in sustainable agriculture? See here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.