March 09, 2021
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Every Breath We Take

Why is the government aggressively attacking and destroying inexpensive eco-friendly technologies and promoting pollution-friendly ones? Are we obliged to repeat all the mistakes that the West committed in its pursuit of economic growth?

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Every Breath We Take

While it makes sense to corner First World countries into investing in eco- friendly technologies to control carbon emissions, as was attempted at Copenhagen, the stand of the Indian government that India cannot afford to enforce better environmental norms because, as a country with a huge backlog of poverty, its first priority is “development” implies that India is obliged to repeat all the mistakes that the West committed in its pursuit of economic growth. While for the First World countries the harmful impact of carbon emissions and consequent global warming may represent a future threat, for us in India it is a now-and-here nightmare. The air that citizens of Europe or America breathe is nowhere as lethal as what we in urban India have to inhale. The quality of water available to citizens of First World countries is nowhere close to the filthy, disease- ridden water we in villages and cities of India have to consume.

In fact, it is far easier for India to undertake course correction since most of our people are not addicted to pollution- friendly life styles. However, our government seems to be doing the very opposite by aggressively attacking and destroying inexpensive eco- friendly technologies and promoting pollution-friendly ones. While our cities are choking with carbon emissions, the government actively encourages mindless increase in motorized vehicles. Our banks chase customers for car loans at low rates. The poor pay 30% rate of interest on micro- credit but car-loans are offered at 8% to 10% per annum with government officials paying no more than 5%. Not surprisingly, Delhi the seat of central government has 60 lakh motorized vehicles – more than all three other metros put together. Each day 1000 new vehicles descend on Delhi roads.

Hostility towards Non-Motorized Vehicles ( NMVs)
As per a 2005 study, 40% of households in India own cycles, with Punjab at a high of 70%. But there is not a single inter- village road which has provided separate bullock cart or cycle tracks. On highways, 20-40 per cent of the fatalities involve pedestrians and bicyclists. 

In my childhood, it was fairly common for schoolchildren even from elite families to commute on cycles. It was the same for office goers. But their use is declining steadily, not just because more people can afford cars and scooters but because riding a cycle on urban or rural roads is to court death. For instance, cyclists used to be 34% of road-users in Ahmedabad in the 1980s. In the decade of 2000s it came down to 18%. In Nagpur they have come down from 45% in 1980s to 35% in 2000s. In 1960, nearly 60% of road users in Delhi were cyclists. Today, their number has come down to 12% despite their being a huge influx of impoverished migrants who work in the unorganised sector.

Even so, the use of bicycles in most towns and cities of India ranges from 25% to over 50% of total traffic. An IIT Delhi study of 2007 found that cycling accounts for 50% to 70% of the commuter trips of those who work in the informal sector. Apart from its obvious convenience for short or medium distance commutes, cycles are preferred because public transport is prohibitively expensive in cities like Delhi. The daily wage of people in the informal sector ranges from Rs 120 to Rs 250 per day,  with several days without wage- work every month. Today, transport costs for those who come to the city from far flung areas for earning their livelihood ranges from Rs 80-100 per day. Therefore, many have to perforce use bicycles. In the absence of separate tracks, cyclists and pedestrians account for nearly 70% of road accident deaths in Delhi.

War against cycle rickshaws
Though private vehicles account for 93% of total motor vehicles in Delhi, only 14% own cars. 85% have to rely on public transport of which cycle rickshaws are a very crucial part. Rickshaws are an inexpensive mode of short distance commutes as well as feeder service for Metro and public buses. They do not consume any fuel and do not cause air or noise pollution. But government has imposed bizarre regulations and laws with the stated purpose of  "eliminating" this vehicle on the ground that cycle rickshaws are out of place in a fast “modernizing” India.

Several thousand rickshaws are arbitrarily confiscated and destroyed every year for operating without licenses, which are so tightly controlled that virtually every rickshaw in Delhi ends up being illegal and therefore subject to confiscation. Rickshaws are banned on all arterial and most sub- arterial roads including the inner walled city areas where they have been the most popular form of transport down the years. However, due to active public demand for their service, they operate on all these roads illegally. Municipal officials and Traffic police look the other way if suitably bribed. Thousands of rickshaws are confiscated every month for going into No Entry Zones, which have been declared so arbitrarily that it makes their existence illegal almost everywhere. Many more are released after paying heavy penalties. All this totals to a loss of at least 360 crores a year to the rickshaw trade. (For an account of the absurd rickshaw policy see

Despite draconian laws used against cycle rickshaws, today Delhi has 600,000 to 700,000 cycle rickshaws and their number is growing daily. This clearly demonstrates that citizens are voting for cycle rickshaw through active demand for their services. Each rickshaw covers a distance of 20-25 kms per day amounting to a total of 120-150 lakh kms for city’s 600,000 rickshaws. If rickshaws are removed from Delhi, it would involve additional petrol expense of nearly 500,000 litres per day.

In 1997, a ‘White Paper on Pollution in Delhi’ by the Ministry of Environment stated that “vehicular pollution contributes 67% of the total air pollution load in Delhi.” The 2005 RITES study predicts that between 2001 and 2021 Delhi’s vehicular trips per day will grow from 10.7 million to 24.7 million. What this will do to our already noxious air quality can well be imagined. To relieve congestion levels, the report advocated provision of bicycle tracks and other non- motorized vehicles. The Delhi Master Plan expressly mandates promotion of cycle- rickshaws, as a measure of pollution control, and as a means of generating employment for self- employed poor. And yet, the government agencies argue they have no space for NMVs. They have launched a virtual war against NMVs and are building our cities as though 14% of those who own cars deserve a total monopoly of road space while others should simply vanish. The Traffic Police is fanatic in its opposition to the creation of separate tracks for NMVs on the ground that rickshaws and cycles slow down motor vehicles, that they are a sign of backwardness and ought to have no place in “modern” India. That does not mean rickshaws have disappeared. All it means is that rickshaw- pullers have to bribe the municipal officials and Traffic Police to ply on banned roads.

Manushi has faced tough resistance in its 15- year- long battle advocating a thorough overhaul of cycle rickshaw regulations and laws and demanding that city governments make space for NMVs on all city roads. (A draft of the policy we submitted to the High Court and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi as well as a new policy announced by Prime Minister Vajpayee in response to Manushi’s campaign in 2001 is available at However, the hostility and resistance to curbing the use of motorized vehicles and allowing NMVs a small share of road space has only grown with time as our policy makers go about transforming Mumbai into a Shanghai and Delhi into a Dusseldorf conveniently forgetting that today almost all first world countries provide cycle tracks and are beginning to discourage the use of private motor vehicles in favour of public transport.

One can provide innumerable cases of similar callous mismanagement by our rulers in virtually every area of life. Reversing these trends does not require billions of aid money from America or Europe. All it requires is a dose of self respect, a bit of good sense and willingness on the part of our government to learn the basic art and tools of citizen- friendly governance which will inevitably lead to eco- friendly policies.


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