Capitalist greed is the root cause of rising air pollution
The recent announcement of the Delhi government that it would repeat the system of rationing of private cars on the roads in the second fortnight of April 2016 under the “odd – even” scheme has brought the issue of air pollution and traffic congestion in Indian cities into focus once again.
Cities in India are unquestionably among the most polluted in the world. Working people are exposed to dangerous levels of hazardous substances every day of their lives. (See box for details.) People also have to spend many hours travelling to and from work each day while being exposed to extremely high levels of air pollution.
Facts about pollution, road congestion and public transport
* The particulate matter in the air is the cause of health problems for people. PM10 gets into the lungs of people and leads to lung diseases. PM2.5 reduces visibility.
* In 2010, the pollution levels of PM10 and PM2.5 in Delhi were 14 -15 times higher than what is considered safe levels as prescribed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) . Since then, the pollution levels have become progressively worse.
* Air pollution in India is estimated to be killing 1.5 million people every year; it is the fifth largest killer in India. India has the world's highest death rate from chronic respiratory diseases and asthma, according to the WHO. Poor quality air damages irreversibly the lungs of 2.2 million or 50 percent of all children in Delhi alone.
* More than half - 13 of the 25 cities worldwide – with the highest levels of PM are in India!
* According to a study conducted recently by IIT Kanpur on air pollution in Delhi, road dust contributes 38% of PM2.5, while vehicles, industrial emissions and domestic emissions contribute 20%, 11% and 12% respectively. Nitrogen Oxides are another major pollutant. The contributions to Nitrogen Oxide pollutions in Delhi are: industrial stacks and diesel generators 58% and vehicles 36% respectively. PM10 around the Badarpur Thermal Power Station, Timarpur-Okhla Waste plant and Ghazipur plant were considerably higher than Delhi’s average.
* Of all the commuters in Delhi (barring people who travel on foot and bicycle), about 42 percent use buses, 25 percent use the Metro, 25 percent use private vehicles and 8 percent use rickshaws. Of the vehicles registered in Delhi, buses are just 0.36% of all registered vehicles in Delhi, while 31 percent are cars and jeeps, and 64 percent are motor cycles and scooters.
* Buses carry much more people (say 40 to 80 each) and contribute only 20% to carbon dioxide emissions, while private vehicles – cars, two-wheelers and others – contribute 80%. Moreover, buses constitute only 40 percent of road traffic while the rest 60 percent traffic comprises of private vehicles and auto rickshaws.
Emission of fumes from motor vehicles is one of the major sources of air pollution in Indian cities. Other sources include road dust, exhaust from power plants and industries, exhaust from diesel generators, dust from construction sites and burning of garbage. (See box for details).
Millions of people in Delhi have to commute long distances – 30 km and more – for work as well as to attend schools and colleges and for other activities. Working people and their families would benefit if their homes were close to their places of work and educational institutions. Such a thing has been organised by the Indian state in the past, where large public sector units had been set up. However, this is not the case as far as the vast majority of factories, offices, and other enterprises are concerned.
The Indian state has not planned urban development keeping in mind the need to ensure that working people are provided living quarters close to their place of work. Factories and companies are set up based on fulfilling the greed for maximum profits. The interests of the working people, who have to commute long distances to work, as well as the interests of society to reduce traffic and pollution, are disregarded.
Capitalist development has been most lopsided. To meet the growing material needs of the people, industries and work centres ought to have been set up in all parts of the country so that large-scale migration to the bigger cities by people in search of work need not occur. However, capitalists set up industries or work centres in or around existing large cities that already have some infrastructure, in order to maximise profits. Thus the private profit motive has made existing cities much more crowded and unliveable for the working people.
Another stark fact that comes to light when one studies the problem of pollution and congestion in the cities of India is that government policy has been designed to promote the sale of private vehicles and not to strengthen or even maintain the public transport system. Thousands of new private vehicles, both two-wheelers and cars, are registered in each big city every day. By allowing an artificially high rate of depreciation, individuals and businesses have been encouraged to purchase new vehicles once every five years, even though the actual life span is much longer.
A bus can transport about 60 people and is much more efficient than cars in terms of road space, with much less fuel emission and pollution per person. But due to the vigorous marketing of private vehicles by the automobile companies, with the active support of the government, private cars and two wheelers have grown rapidly at the expense of buses. The share of buses among all registered vehicles in Delhi, for instance, has gone down from 1.52% in 1980-81 to 0.36% in 2014-15.
Given all this, the odd-even scheme of the Delhi Government is a temporary palliative. Any solution to the problem of rising air pollution and traffic congestion requires strengthening the public transport system and reducing the sale of private vehicles through appropriate tax and depreciation policies. It requires social planning to ensure that working people are provided with housing close to their place of work; and educational, health and recreational facilities are located close to their place of residence. It requires the replacement of the present capital-centred orientation of the economy and government policy by a human-centred orientation. In other words, fulfilment of human needs must replace the maximisation of capitalist profit as the driving motive force of the economy and of government policy.