Few people realise that Delhi, not Mumbai, is India's largest city. The Census of India doesn't agree - it counts Mumbai's suburbs as part of the Mumbai "urban agglomeration". In Delhi, however, state boundaries prevent it from counting suburbs like Noida and Ghaziabad as its precincts. If these and others in the National Capital Region are taken together, Delhi becomes the world's third largest urban agglomeration, with a population of 2.5 crore people, next only to Tokyo and Jakarta.
From 1951 to 2001, Delhi's population doubled every year. Between 2001 and 2011, the population growth was 20%. This decline in population growth was thanks to one thing India got right: developing the suburbs known as the National Capital Region or NCR.
Given that India isn't the best of governed countries, it is a miracle that the NCR is liveable at all. It isn't just Delhi's 1.7 crore people, but also the people from suburbs and traffic from across north India that makes Delhi so vulnerable to pollution from motorised vehicles and other sources such as the farm fires in Punjab.
As a proud Delhizen, I want to point out the chaos here is the same as seem across much of urban India. Given that the air quality of Patna, Gwalior and Raipur is nearly as bad as in Delhi and their population much smaller, I'd say Delhi has managed its air much better than many Indian cities. You can't breathe good quality air whether you are in Beijing or Bangkok. Air pollution is a common problem in big cities in the developing world.
This isn't the first time Delhi is panicking over air pollution. A similar air pollution Armageddon scenario loomed large in the late '90s, forcing the Supreme Court in 2001 to ban public transport vehicles from running on petrol or diesel and mandating their conversion to CNG. This reduced pollution in Delhi, but also took many buses off the roads and they are yet to return. The Delhi Metro has taken away at least 2 million passengers a day from the roads. Imagine the chaos and the pollution if the Delhi Metro, which began operations in 2003 and continues expanding, didn't exist.
Much of today's public transport crisis in Delhi is owed to the legacy of the poor response of the Delhi government to the Supreme Court's directives between 1998 and 2001. The Supreme Court and the government have both gone about making tougher regulation for commercial vehicles that ferry people who don't own cars. For car owners, however, the government has been spending thousands of crores of rupees building flyovers.
The alarm bells this time are so loud that hopefully the right lessons have been learnt. In two-three years, we should see a decline in Delhi's pollution levels. Two new Delhi Metro lines over the Inner and Outer Ring Roads will take the number of inter-change stations from 4 to 27. This will cut travel time, and make almost every part of Delhi accessible by the Metro. A lot more people will park their cars and take the Metro.
The Delhi Metro has become a model for cities across India and even beyond. The Metro was proposed for decades, but became a reality only in 2003. Similarly, creating peripheral highways to prevent trucks from using Delhi to criss-cross North India has been proposed for years - the current crisis should ensure this becomes a reality very soon. It will take time, but the Delhi government will eventually find the land to create new bus depots and put a lot more buses on the roads. For these buses to be effective, a dedicated bus corridor, much hated by car owners, is inevitable across the major roads.
Air pollution in Delhi is bad enough for doctors to tell patients of respiratory diseases to leave Delhi. Yet, I have no doubt that it will improve, just as it did in the early 2000s. Let us not allow ourselves to become hysterical over air pollution to the point that we start hating Delhi. It remains India's best city to live in. It has wide open spaces, lower rent and wider roads than Mumbai, it's far less muggy than Kolkata or Chennai, has a vibrant intellectual and cultural life Bengaluru can never match, and a welcoming society Bombaywallahs envy. It is also the place of choice for migrants from across India. Today's Delhi is what Mumbai used to be till the '90s - the city of dreams.
The 2012 protests over violence against women, non-stop for a whole month, showed India and the world that Delhi's people are willing to act to make their city better. Those protests were an inspiration for campaigns across the world. Let our battle with air pollution be similarly a model for the rest to follow.
(Shivam Vij is a journalist in Delhi.)
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