Empty symbolism of Car Free Day; If tamasha can suffice, why govern?

Delhi has had a second successive Car Free Day, this time in Dwarka. Thousands attended it, hundreds participated in a cycle rally, thousands more walked to demonstrate their solidarity to the cause of reducing pollution in Delhi in particular and a healthier environment, in general.

Chief Minister of Delhi came personally, participated in the cycle rally and addressed the enthusiastic crowd. He also announced that next car free day would be on 22nd January, in Patparganj, East Delhi.

Excellent!

It reminds me of another such initiative, called Earth Hour. On a specific day, once a year, we switch
off lights at 8 PM, for one hour. Off course, air conditioners, refrigerators, washing machines, fans, microwaves etc keep running during the appointed hour. For the rest of 364 days and 23 hours, we can feel smug in the thought that

Going for a Car Free Day

Going for a Car Free Day?

we have contributed to the environment.

Around 0.1% of population, switch off around 15% of the electric appliances, for around 0.0014% of the time to feel good about itself, its commitment to environment and absolves itself of the all its responsibilities for the rest of the year. It is estimated that that this initiative reduces our annual consumption of electricity by around 0.000017%.

During the Earth Hour, we save around one unit of every 70000 spent, normally in a similar period. Not exactly earthshaking, na?

Consider today’s car free day then.

If 10000 people assembled at Dwarka, from different parts of Delhi, to participate in the Car Free day, what mode of transport did they use to come? Inconceivable that everyone used public transport to reach there. Those who have seen traffic jams caused by swanky cars of joggers & other exercise enthusiasts at the gate of Lodhi Gardens in the early morning hours would find it even more difficult to imagine.

Assuming that 80% felt that it is their responsibility to Delhi to travel in public transport while going to this event and only 20% used their personal vehicles to reach the venue of Car Free Day, it would mean around 2000 vehicles travelled a distance varying from 5 kms to 20 kms, to participate in a car free day. Question is, today being a Sunday, would these cars or bikes travelled this distance if the owners were not participating the event?

How did the Chief Minister, Dy Chief Minister, the transport Minister or other government officials reach the venue? No answers for guessing this right. Assuming a caravan of only five vehicles per minister and only ten ministers / officials, 50 government cars burnt fuel and added to the pollution of Delhi for participating in the event. Add to this the department that organized the event. The arrangement, the preparation and the management of the whole tamasha would have made many vehicles travel many a miles.

A friend, wanting to do his bit for the environment and reducing pollution, put his bicycle in the boot of the Honda city that he drove from Alaknanda to Dwarka, a distance of around 30 Kilometres, parked it in a lane around 200 meter away from venue. And he was ready for the Car Free Day!

In other words, hundreds of vehicles (or may be thousands) had to travel a distance, burn the fuel they would not have burned because a Car Free Day was organized. A Car Free Day ended up adding to the Delhi pollution, instead of reducing it.

It reminds me of a television reporter who paid bribe to a common man to elicit a statement that corruption has gone down after a certain government came to power.

Why are such events organized, then?

Such events give a lot of succour to those of us who feel guilty about what we are doing to our planet, our environment and our cities. These events provide an opportunity to the wannabe political activist who wants to be seen by some one higher up in the political outfit. For the organizing department, it is time to blow up some of the budget and have fun.  But the main beneficiary is the government as these events impart a positive feeling of, “At least, we are doing something.” Unwilling to take tough or unpopular decisions, such events always help in showcasing the fake intent the government has about the issue. A positive PR and avoiding unpopular actions on any controversial issue are also accretive at the hustings.

And, we all love symbolism.  By giving a five rupee coin to a beggar across our wind screen, we feel we are contributing to removing poverty. Giving a high compensation to a victim of violence is an easier alternative to the difficulty of maintaining law & order. In a train accident, we give more attention to who visited the site when than the steps government is supposed to take to improve safety.

So. what should Delhi government be doing instead?  Even from a layman’s perspective, few things can be rattled off; Reduce the number of vehicles on the road and number of polluting industries near residential areas.

For example, a simple action of banning cars with registration numbers ending with specific digits on specific days can reduce vehicles on the road by almost 20%! Letting Delhi Police and Regional Transport Authority become strict about illegal & unlicenced autos running in Sangam Vihars and Uttam Nagars would make a major dent on pollution as many of these autos run on diesel. The relocation of industries, ordered by Supreme Court in 1996, yes you read that right, 1996, if speeded up to complete in next one year may help in a big way.

But these actions would require months of hardwork, detailed planning, coordination with other governments and agencies and carry the risk of alienating many sections of society, not exactly a palatable thought for any political outfit. Importantly, these actions would lack the glamour and photo opportunity of such glitzy, media covered events.

So are such public awareness campaigns useless? Well, yes and no.

Public awareness campaigns are quite useful where the problem to be solved, the evil to be rooted out has more social element than administrative or legal. For example how a family treats the girl child or how the society treats and AIDS victim need to be changed through public awareness campaigns. Off course the basic laws behind the social push about equality of sexes and the healthcare facilities needed have to be in place before the campaigns.

But such social campaigns can’t work when the stringent laws are not in place, the willingness to implement the existing ones is sacrificed at the alter of political expediency and the objective is to use the event as a photo opportunity. In such situations, they remain what they are; empty symbolism.

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