It’s nearing midnight, and a dense shroud of dust and smoke hangs over this checkpost 500m away from the Shahdara flyover in Delhi’s east. This is one of over 100 checkposts for trucks that enter the city — an estimated 80,000, from 8pm to 6am, at just over two per second.
“You might think there’s a fire here, but it’s just the smoke emitted by these vehicles,” says a staffer at the toll booth, turning towards the nearly 50 trucks in queue to be cleared. “Some of them are 10 years old, some 15, some 20. And most of them run on a mixture of kerosene and diesel to save money.”
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Already down on its knees, its air full of that lethal dust called respirable suspended particulate matter (RSPM) that reached an average high of 316 µg/m3 this year, it’s the last thing Delhi needs.
Thousands of unmonitored trucks driving through its heart, each injecting a dose of poison in the air over the residential colonies on either side, because one of the two expressways meant to keep them out of Delhi is a semi-built road, and the other is still on paper.
“The trucks fan out like water in a river and the entire road gets clogged,” said Bhure Lal, chairman of the Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA), a body mandated by the Supreme Court to monitor air pollution in Delhi.
“It’s not possible to stop a truck, irrespective of how old it is or how polluting it is, because of poor enforcement. I have stood at Delhi’s entry points and seen the situation for myself,” he added.
The Indian Express spent last Monday night at two of the main checkposts for these trucks — Shahdara for vehicles coming from UP, and Badarpur for trucks from Haryana — and spoke to toll booth staffers, drivers, transport officials and traffic policemen as part of this investigation.
This is what they said:
♦ In three hours at the Shahdara checkpost, 34 of the 50 drivers that The Indian Express spoke to said they hadn’t conducted pollution checks on their trucks in the last two years. Twenty-three of them said their trucks were more than 15 years old.
♦ Toll staffers at the checkposts said all they look for is whether the drivers had toll slips. “Checking the cargo and pollution documents is the responsibility of traffic police,” one of them said. Till 1.30 am, not one policeman had shown up.
♦ In Badarpur, a traffic police officer who is part of a team deputed to man these toll booths said it was “impossible” to be present at all the checkposts because of lack of adequate staff. “Besides, we don’t have the right equipment, whether it has to do with weighing the trucks or measuring how much they pollute,” he added.
♦ Drivers at Badarpur admitted that they resort to a number of shortcuts to circumvent the system, such as submitting false documents to show that their goods are intended for Delhi, so that they can bypass Supreme Court norms and curbs on certain roads.
♦ “The easiest way to do it is to get a delivery slip, which proves that your goods are intended for Delhi. You can either get them when you pick up the goods or organise them before entering Delhi. This is everyday business,” said Sunil Rajour, who was on his way to Karnal.
♦ Some drivers wait till the traffic policemen “ leave their posts”. “My truck is overloaded and at least 20 years old. But if I wait till 4 am, the police will leave their posts and we can enter freely. This is what happens every day,” said Ramesh Bawa, whose destination was Rohtak.
♦ A driver at the Shahdara checkpost blamed the owner of his truck for forcing him to mix diesel with kerosene to save money. “All this hue and cry is about diesel,” said Rafiq, who was on his way to Agra. “If the truck owners actually let us use diesel, it won’t be so bad. They make us mix kerosene with diesel to cut costs. The fumes make me sick too,” he said.
SC issued warning in 2001
This is not a sudden crisis but one that has been brewing for several years. In 2001, three years after it ordered all public transport vehicles in Delhi to switch to the cleaner CNG, the Supreme Court observed, “It appears that vehicles which transit through Delhi do not adhere to the vehicular standards which are applicable in Delhi… There is no reason why a very large number of goods vehicles should transit through Delhi thereby adding to the pollution level and traffic on roads.”
Subsequently, the EPCA pointed out in a report submitted to the apex court that a “multiplicity of authority in this area is compounding the problem of implementation (of effective measures to tackle air pollution)”.
AAP govt promises ‘Maximum measures’
A spokesperson from the East Municipal Corporation of Delhi said that according to their estimates, an average of “around 80,000 trucks enter Delhi every night”. “In the early 2000s, it was estimated that 50,000 trucks were coming into Delhi,” he added.
When contacted, Delhi’s new Transport Minister and AAP leader Gopal Rai said that his government would look at “maximum measures” to curb the entry of trucks in the city, including a corridor to ensure that vehicles bound for other states don’t have to pass through the capital.
“Pollution is a major concern for this government. Ideas being discussed include the creation of a corridor, one each in the North and South, so that vehicles bound for other states do not pass through Delhi. This is still at the plan-level,” Rai said.
“But it is difficult to say how long this may take. The plan will have to be worked by the Public Works Department,” he added.
Ramakant Goswami, Rai’s predecessor from the Congress government that ruled Delhi for 15 years till 2013, said that they had tried “very hard” to tackle the issue too but other states “didn’t cooperate”.
“While we were in power, we tried very hard to stop the problem of trucks coming into Delhi and polluting our air. These trucks come from states where the fuel isn’t as clean as in Delhi. But the other states just didn’t cooperate with us,” Goswami said.
But who is in charge?
Meanwhile, it’s 2am at the Shahdara post, and time to move on. At the toll booth on the UP border in Noida, there are a few officials present — from the Transport Department and traffic police. But the big question remains: who is in charge?
“The traffic police do not conduct any checks. Every day, we have to keep calling them to come and help us. What will we do if a truck driver gets violent or abusive?” said a Transport official.
Said the policeman standing nearby, “We only have orders to assist them when possible. We are burdened at night with accidents, and traffic jams. It is impossible to conduct a separate check only for these trucks.”