People whose petitions brought about key environmental rulings look back at the way the capital, having once become a model for fighting air pollution, went downhill from there
Sheila Dikshit was chief minister of Delhi’s Congress government from 1998-2013 — 15 years during which several measures were charted out to contain air pollution. But except for CNG for public transport following a Supreme Court verdict, and a cess on diesel, nothing much happened on the ground. Excerpts from the Interview:
Environment experts say your government failed to act upon its promise of cleaning Delhi’s polluted air.
This is misleading. To say that the people in the previous government did nothing is wrong. It’s a way of shirking responsibility or inability to tackle what has now become a huge problem.
Why was your government unable to control vehicular population over the previous decade?
We couldn’t stop people from buying cars. We tried to get fewer of them on the roads —not stop sale, but look at reducing the number on the road. For instance, we tried to popularise carpooling. But the ideas weren’t popular.
You have to understand that there are various lobbies. If auto manufacturers have buyers, for them it looks unfair that we are stopping their growth. On the other hand, the air quality has become worse. Unless there’s a collective decision and the lobbies come together for the good of the people, nothing can be done. I find it a little disappointing. We have been through it, innumerable meetings with the lobbies. Because we, the people of Delhi, were the most disturbed by it.
Your government announced a number of schemes after the implementation of CNG and the plan to provide Delhi with a “green cover”. But these were not enforced as well as they could have been. What went wrong?
We had different ideas, such as assigning odd and even numbers to cars, to restrict the numbers on the roads. But the government traffic department and the police come under the central government. More importantly, the traffic department has to have the will to do it. The crisscrossing of traffic among Haryana, UP, Rajasthan and Delhi made it difficult. Once you have the will to do it, it’s possible.
The Supreme Court issued an order in 2005 on creating peripheral routes to divert truck traffic not meant for Delhi. Why has that not happened?
A lack of coordination between states remained the prime cause. We had met then transport minister Kamal Nath on the issue. But the states didn’t want to contribute to the construction of the expressway, since it didn’t affect them. The problem was that we needed goods to come in, since we don’t manufacture anything. The states surrounding Delhi needed to come together. Haryana did try to do it, but land acquisition was a huge problem… and even though we needed the expressway the most, we also had the least land to give.
Your government did succeed in one area — a diesel cess of Rs 0.25 per litre. What happened to the other measures tried?
People in the government feared that putting a surcharge on diesel could hit revenue, since it’s a porous border. Especially, petrol pump owners near the border came to us and said we’ll ruin them. But eventually we found that the impact wasn’t as great as feared.
When we tried to make Connaught Place a no-congestion zone in 2008, the trader community said customers would stop coming. They said they wouldn’t walk that much. Similar problems were faced in Khan Market, when we proposed the creation of a separate parking zone for customers. In both cases, people refused to see the importance and we had to relent.