Mexico City to Delhi, she has a bike and some lessons to clear the air

Mexican envoy warns against quick fixes, says their 1989 car policy is only a ‘small cog in a larger plan’

Written by Apurva | New Delhi | Published: December 27, 2015 5:37 am

She tries to cycle at least 50 km every day — from Rajokri to Faridabad — and most days, manages. But with the air in Delhi deteriorating as winter sets in, her friends and colleagues have suggested that she start wearing a mask. Or better yet, buy an exercise cycle and work out indoors.

But Mexico’s Ambassador to India, Melba Pria, is not surprised. She says she’s seen it all before — 26 years ago.

In 1989, three years before the UN declared it the world’s most polluted city, Mexico’s capital brought in the world’s first road-rationing policy dubbed “hoy no circula”, which roughly translates to “today, (your car) does not circulate”.

Since then, the Mexico City programme has found resonance in Bogotá, Santiago, Sao Paulo and even Beijing. According to Ambassador Pria, Mexico City registered 248 days in 2012 with an air quality level considered “good” — Delhi registered only 16 such days in 2015.

Today, air pollution in Delhi rivals only Beijing, with the levels of particulate matter rising every day since October, touching a high of 352 µg/m3 on December 23 and 358 µg/m3 on November 10. And starting January 1, the Delhi government will emulate “hoy no circula”, with its odd-even car policy.

Facing an eerily similar situation from over two decades ago, Ambassador Pria believes the rationing of road space is a good first step, but warns of quick fixes.

“The process of tackling air pollution began with the temporary “hoy no circula” policy, which is not an odd-even policy but rather a vehicle mobility restriction programme. More importantly, it was a small cog in a larger plan to improve the environment. This included strict vehicle fitness norms, mandatory catalytic converters in all cars, expansion of the metro system, better buses and the promotion of bicycle use,” she said.

“In 1989, the residents of Mexico City had become animals of habit. From the doorstep and into a car. Cars had become more important than shoes. This had to be changed,” she said.

Even today, all vehicles in Mexico must pass a verification test every six months. They are granted a score which determines their restriction in the city.

While some critics maintain that “hoy no circula” conversely led to the public buying a second, cheaper vehicle to undermine the programme, Ambassador Pria disagrees. “The Mario Molina Centre carried out a survey in 2013 asking citizens how they tackled the restrictions. It showed 63.8 per cent used public transport on the restricted day, 13.8 per cent stayed at home, 8.3 per cent used taxis, only 4.5 per cent had bought a new vehicle, and 3.9 per cent carpooled,” she said.

So how did Mexico City manage the public, the deficit in public transport and its 18 million residents on board? The answer: A massive public awareness drive, strict rules (violating “hoy no circula” meant a fine with the vehicle impounded for 48 hours), stringent vehicle fitness norms, better public transport and cycles.

But will it work in Delhi, where her own embassy in Anand Niketan has air purifiers in all rooms?

“There are no quick fixes. There must be short term, middle and long term goals. In Mexico, it did not matter whether party A was in power and had to work with party B. It was not an electoral thing. There is decades of research in the world, on gasoline use and vehicles. There is enough information in the world and in India. This is hurting our lungs and our children’s lungs. We must think of the younger generation and what we leave for them,” she said.

And what about her cycling? “I am more careful these days. I love cycling, and all of December I come into Delhi to cycle from Rajokri to Faridabad. I tried a mask a few times, but my friends have suggested that I get an exercise cycle and work out inside the house instead. I went running recently and used a mask,” she said.

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