Opinion: Money For Ads, Not For Infrastructure?

The Supreme Court recently rapped the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi for not releasing funds for the Regional Rapid Transit System (RRTS) project. While directing the Delhi government to immediately transfer the money to National Capital Region Transport Corporation (NCRTC), the Supreme Court remarked: "If such national projects are affected, and if the money is being spent on advertisement, we would be inclined to ask the money to be directed to infrastructure." The apex court said if the Delhi government didn't comply with the direction within a week, the order would come into operation.

A Supreme Court bench was hearing petitions filed after the spike in air pollution in the capital. The RRTS project is meant to reduce vehicular pollution in the National Capital Region. In a recent collaboration between the Delhi government and IIT-Kanpur, findings revealed that vehicular emissions contributed to approximately 38 per cent of the capital's air pollution.

What is the RRTS Project?

In order to augment connectivity within Delhi-NCR and reduce the commuters' dependency on road transport, the National Capital Region Planning Board (NCRPB) had proposed to connect urban, industrial (SEZs/industrial parks), regional and sub-regional centres through a fast rail-based system. The RRTS will lessen travel time, pollution and congestion created by the movement of the vehicles. The NCRPB conducted a study on an Integrated Transportation Plan for NCR projecting figures for 2032, and identified eight rail-based rapid transit corridors to enhance the efficacy of the transport system in the NCR. Three corridors, Delhi-Meerut, Delhi-Panipat and Delhi- Alwar, are being built in Phase 1.

The rail corridor called RAPIDX will connect Delhi, Ghaziabad and Meerut. The Delhi-Meerut corridor is nearly 82 km in length. The estimated cost of the project, per a 2019 court document, was Rs 31, 632 crores with 60:40 debt equity ratio. The central government and the Uttar Pradesh Government have given their share and the Asian Development Bank has decided to furnish the debt part. The contribution of the Central government to the project is Rs 5,687 crore, that of Uttar Pradesh is Rs 5,828 crore and Delhi's is Rs 1,138 crore. Once operational, the first RRTS corridor is estimated to reduce 2,50,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide in vehicular emissions per year. An estimated daily ridership on the 82-km Delhi-Ghaziabad-Meerut corridor is 8 lakhs. Once the RAPIDX becomes functional, it will take more than one lakh vehicles off the road. Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the 17-km priority section of the Delhi-Ghaziabad-Meerut RRTS Corridor on October 20.

The ongoing controversy

In July, the Delhi government agreed to make budgetary provisions to hand over its share of funds for the RRTS project. The AAP government, however, reneged on its promise and expressed its helplessness in the court. The Delhi government said it had no funds to contribute its share of Rs 3,261 crore for the construction of the Delhi-Gurugram-Rewari-Alwar corridor and Rs 2,443 crore for the Delhi-Sonipat-Panipat corridor. The NCRTC then filed an application alleging breach of the Delhi government's undertaking to the court on July 24.

Atmaram NS Nadkarni, the senior Supreme Court advocate who represented the NCRTC, said Article 21 was interpreted to mean an injunction against the state assuring citizens the right to breathe clean air free of pollution.

"It's most unfortunate that any state or government can afford to have such a casual lackadaisical approach in such important matters. The Supreme Court has done a great job in securing the forest cover of our country. This order will be an eye opener for all states and authorities," Mr Nadkarni said.

In the past, the Supreme Court has treated the right to live in a pollution-free environment as a part of the fundamental Right to Life under Article 21 of the Constitution.

The Supreme Court was upset at the fact that in the last three years, the Delhi Government argued shortage of funds even though it had some Rs 1,100 crore to spend on its advertisements. In the ongoing financial year too, the Arvind Kejriwal-led government in Delhi assigned Rs 550 crore in the budget for advertisements. This was much more than the amount the Delhi government had to pay to cover its share of expenditure on the RRTS project. The Delhi government was to pay Rs 415 crore for the crucial infrastructure project. It agreed to pay its portion for the Delhi-Meerut stretch, but declined to shoulder the financial burden for the remaining two stretches citing lack of funds.

Rajeshwar Pratap Singh, a journalist, lives in Noida but travels to Delhi for work. "As a citizen of Delhi-NCR, I find it frustrating to hear that the Delhi government doesn't have funds to spend on infrastructure projects like the railroad, which will benefit people in a big way. Not only will commuting become easy but also less vehicles will ply on roads, which means less pollution. Pollution is choking and shortening lives and the Delhi government is delaying the project while splashing money on advertisements," Mr Singh said.

The Delhi-NCR region continues to be the most polluted in the world and vehicular pollution remains one of the main contributing factors. The Delhi government has been collecting a cess - ECC (environment compensation charge) - imposed by the Supreme Court on diesel cars above 2000 cc in order to check pollution. Earlier, from the Rs 1,000 crore collected in this cess fund, the Supreme Court had allowed the Delhi government to use Rs 500 crore to fund the Delhi-Meerut corridor as the project was being delayed.

What is worrying and shocking is that there has been no effort on the part of the AAP-led government to make budgetary allocations for the project. AAP leaders in the Delhi government don't shy away from making tall claims about being different and bringing change in the lives of common man. The Supreme Court order has exposed the reality and the Delhi government's lack of intention or inclination to contribute its share in an infrastructure project like the RRTS project, which will help eliminate one of the root causes of the perpetual pollution.

(Bharti Mishra Nath is a senior journalist)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author