Breathe uneasy: A day in the life of a govt Clear-Air-Campaign team in Delhi

While according to NGT orders, parking in the city should be restricted to designated areas, there are only around 250 surface parking lots in the city and even fewer multi-level lots for the estimated 1,400 vehicles that are added to Delhi’s roads every day.

Written by Harikrishnan Nair | Published: February 25, 2018 1:16:49 am
Breathe uneasy: A day in the life of a govt Clear-Air-Campaign team in Delhi Vehicles being towed away in east Delhi’s Geeta Colony. (Source: Express photo by Gajendra Yadav)

Cars, construction rubble, choked drains — there is little that slips the attention of the team, one of 70 such in Delhi on a drive against pollution, issuing challans and towing away vehicles. The question is what happens once they leave.

“Arrey, woh hamari gaadi hai, kahan le ja rahe ho (That’s our car. Where are you taking it)?” yells the woman, leaning across the first-floor balcony of a building in east Delhi’s Geeta Colony. On the narrow colony road in Block 10, which has cars parked on the covered drains on either side, a crowd has gathered near the woman’s Maruti car that officials are preparing to tow. The woman rushes down the stairs of her apartment building, mobile phone in hand and talking agitatedly into it.

“You shouldn’t have parked your car here. It’s blocking traffic. This is a public road,” says Gandhi Nagar sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) T C Sharma as the woman runs up to him.

“Where else can I park? This is right in front of our home. It is not troubling anyone. Please, sir,” pleads the woman, who by now seems to have realised she is losing this argument.

Sharma, in a sleeveless blue hoodie with ‘Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC)’ printed on the back, is unmoved. “The rules say there should be parking space within newly-constructed buildings,” he says. “We have to be strict now that Delhi’s air is so bad.”

It is this air that has got the Central and state governments to put aside their political differences and throw all but the kitchen sink at the problem. As part of a two-week Clear Air Campaign launched on February 10, 70 teams of five members — one each from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, the Central and state pollution control boards, the state government and the local MCD — each have been given an Assembly constituency to inspect. Their mandate: identify sources of pollution, penalise violators and spread awareness.

Sharma’s team — with Suneel Dave (CPCB Additional Director), M I Siddique (DPCC Environment Engineer), Bidhu Ram (a sanitation inspector with the East Delhi municipality) and Poonam Singh (a director at the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change) — is “Team #1”, as the windscreen of their vehicle announces. With them today are constables Devender Pandey and Pradeep. “Poonam ma’am couldn’t join us as she had some work at the ministry,” informs Sharma.

At 10 am on the Monday that the team visited Geeta Colony, the Anand Vihar air quality monitoring station, around 7 km away, recorded PM 2.5 levels of 390 on the Air Quality Index. Which meant the air was “very poor”. “These are dangerous levels (of pollution). We are going all out on this campaign,” says Sharma.

Breathe uneasy: A day in the life of a govt Clear-Air-Campaign team in Delhi The team at a building site, where the contractor was fined for leaving construction material on the road. (Source: Express photo by Gajendra Yadav)

As the man leading the team, Sharma has the power to issue challans and order demolitions, if needed. And today, he is clearly the man calling the shots. If there is a car parked out of place, he’d instruct constable Devender Pandey to call in a tow truck. If there is construction material piled up on the road, Sharma would challan the contractor.

“Traffic contributes a lot to pollution. The longer a car stays on the road, the more the emission,” explains Dave of the CPCB.

According to a widely cited IIT Kanpur study, the top four contributors to PM 2.5 emissions in Delhi are road dust (38%), vehicles (20%), domestic fuel burning (12%) and industrial point sources (11%).

Over the last week, Sharma and team have towed away vehicles, fined contractors for leaving construction material uncovered and eateries for illegally using coal in their tandoor, ordered demolitions and asked for water to be sprinkled on dust.

An MoEFCC press release on February 19 read: “The teams have so far reported 4,347 cases of violation and issued challans in 1, 892 cases, amounting to Rs 54 crore. SAFAR (System of Air Quality Forecasting and Research) has projected that the Clean Air Campaign has resulted in significant reduction in the level of air pollution vis-à-vis the business as usual scenario.”

Sharma says that while they are aware that their drive brings them in direct conflict with people’s livelihoods and property, “the rules have been flouted with impunity for too long”.

However, in areas such as Geeta Colony, a colony that is a haphazard mix of residential buildings and commercial establishments, these “rules” are often a blur. While according to NGT orders, parking in the city should be restricted to designated areas, there are only around 250 surface parking lots in the city and even fewer multi-level lots for the estimated 1,400 vehicles that are added to Delhi’s roads every day.

“Everyone parks here,” protests Shalini Das, a homemaker, as she watches her car being towed away. “Where else do we park? These people should come here tomorrow when the Gandhi Nagar haat (a weekly market) is on. There are so many cars here… Which ones will they tow?” she says, walking away to her building in a huff.

By now, a small group of people, mostly residents, are hanging around Sharma, each trying to get a word in.

“Sir, aapne bhi toh gaadi road par park kiya hai (You too have parked your car on the road),” says a man whose vehicle was towed away minutes ago.

Sharma ignores him. “Please let us do our duty,” he says.

As the man trails Sharma, constable Pradeep intervenes. “Haven’t I told you once? Your car will be at the MCD office near Karkardooma court. Go away now,” he says sternly, prompting immediate obedience.

A little distance away, the MCD’s Bidhu Ram is diligently taking down notes of alleged violations. “I will have to send this list to the MCD,” he says, making another entry of a ‘violation’ — a sewage drain hole that’s choked with mud.

Over the next couple of hours, the team penalises two contractors on MCD projects. But the big catch of the day is an under-construction two-storey night shelter run by the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board, where sand, cement and gravel have been left uncovered.

Breathe uneasy: A day in the life of a govt Clear-Air-Campaign team in Delhi Constable Pandey at the spot. (Source: Express photo by Gajendra Yadav)

The contractor isn’t around so Sharma hands a challan of Rs 50,000 —the maximum the team can levy — to a worker, and Dave advises him and others to wear masks.

Around noon, local councillor Sandeep Kapoor of the BJP visits the spot. Standing outside an MCD toilet that is being repaired, SDM Sharma tells Kapoor, “As the people’s representative, your cooperation will mean a lot to us. Look at this — sand and cement right in the middle of the road. Look at how narrow this wide road now seems.” Kapoor admits the contractor has flouted rules.

Around 2 pm, the team decides to break for lunch, after which the members disperse for meetings they have to attend in different parts of the city. Before parting, they decide to regroup at the SDM office at Shastri Nagar at 4 pm and then head for the evening inspection.

A little after 4 pm, the team, now accompanied by Poonam Singh of the MoEF, who had missed the morning drive, leaves the SDM office for the next round — starting from Geeta Colony’s Darbar Marg to Jheel Terminal, a 1-km-long narrow road whose footpaths have all been taken over by small enterprises.

Here too, vehicles are towed away and fines handed out. People scramble to get their vehicles out of the team’s way. “Yaar, jaldi aa jao varna tera Hyundai MCD waale leke jayenge (Come quickly before they take away your car),” a young man shouts into his phone. Five minutes later, a man arrives pillion on a motorcycle, leaps into the parked Hyundai car and revs it away.

As more cars get towed away, the road opens up and the traffic flows smoother.

Vijay Kapoor, a resident of the area who has come out to watch the drive, says while there are rules, the municipal authorities offer no solutions.

“Look at these shops and other establishments here. These people who run their businesses have paid parking fees to the MCD. Which means at least their customers should be allowed to use the space outside their shop to park their cars. Now if you tow away vehicles, won’t it affect their businesses?”

Sushil Kapoor, a hosiery supplier, says the MCD parking spots are all usually occupied by commercial vehicles. “There is corruption there too,” he alleges.

Satpal Singh and Somnath Sahani, two senior citizens out on evening walk, are happy about the drive. “People have to be more disciplined and understand that burning waste and parking cars haphazardly cause a lot of problems,” says Somnath.

By 5.30 pm, the crowd has got edgy and SDM Sharma calls a police team for assistance. Soon, policemen in plainclothes arrive at the spot and order the crowd to disperse. Some who resist gets a few hard knocks on their heads.

The team now finally calls it a day. The 1-km stretch to Jheel Terminal took them almost two hours to cover.

On the way back, the team car comes to a sudden halt outside a bakery. “Two days ago, we had issued a challan of Rs 20,000 to the owners of this shop for letting construction material pile up on the road. See, they still haven’t cleared it,” says SDM Sharma.

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