Sunday, April 4, 2010

Flyovers Reduce Emissions and other Examples of Delhi Greenwash

Before we get to the greenwash, Kabir Arora from the Indian Youth Climate Network asked us to announce a summer course: "Agenda For Survival" from Anil Aggarwal Green College (Center for Science & Environment). Kabir has attended the course and gives it a strong endorsement.  For more information about the course, you can find details on the CSE website, here
Our April Fool's issue was more difficult to write than I expected.  I think this was partly because when you are trying to make fun of silly (but real) policies and policy statements, satire can end up sounding ... reasonable--and reasonable is not funny!  (The exception to that was our suggestion that we replace the CWG with an international Science that was reasonable and funny!)

One thing I realized in researching that post was that our leadership spends a great deal of time applying greenwashJust google "Sheila Dikshit" +green and you'll get over 33,000 results; try "Sheila Dixit" +green, and you'll get another 4,500.  That, my friends, is a lot of green! Of course some of it is the real thing.    But a lot of it, I found, is greenwash; and a coat of greenwash does not make something truly "green".  It's a little bit like dying an egg at Easter, or dumping a bucket of colour on a kid at Holi--it's fun, it looks nice, but it really doesn't change anything in the long run! Below are three examples of what I'm talking about.

Delhi Greenwash: 1-2-3:
1.  Shelia Dikshit's plan to phase out auto rickshaws:
“Auto-rickshaws are not a good option — they are uncomfortable and pollute environment....We are looking at the option of electric cars and even electric motorcycles.I was recently told that cycles are fitted with electric motor — this will be a good option for travelling short distances.”--Indian Express, March 18
Sorry, but this is not about the environment.  This government doesn't even enforce bicycle lane rules on the BRT where there are cycle lanes--they are over-run daily by motorized vehicles during rush hour.  How will we convince people who can afford to take an auto to ride battery powered cycles in these conditions? And as for electric cars, they are a long way from becoming cost effective when compared to CNG-powered autos.  Besides, an electric car uses a lot more steel--not to mention rare earth metals in its electric motor--than a little green and yellow Delhi auto; it's actually not clear to me which is "greener."  That's not to say that autorickshaws are completely and truly green--they are not nearly as good as buses, cycles, or even the metro.  But they are not the worst polluters on the road--not even close.  

The CM wants to ban autos, because they are "uncomfortable" and their drivers are "rude."  To make autos more comfortable, all you really need to do is reduce traffic from the millions of private cars on the roads.  Delhi's expansion of the Metro and the bus system will help here.  As for rudeness, many auto drivers are under huge amounts of stress--some of it unnecessary.  For a discussion about what kinds of pressures auto drivers face--and what we might do about it, see this piece in Kafila.  Maybe that's where the CM should start.

I suspect part of the problem with autorickshaws is that they are not the kind of transportation that fit with the current idea of what a "World Class" city should look like.  After all, do you see autos in London or Paris or  Los Angeles?  Of course the emissions in those cities are much, much higher than in Delhi, but that's another story.

2. MCD wants solar powered carts for street vendors:
From a story in last week's Asian Age:
These carts will also be fitted with solar panels for the requirements of lighting after sunset. The official said that usually the vendors use battery lanterns having CFL bulbs or even normal electric bulbs. With the solar panels fixed, not only would these carts look good but also help in curbing pollution.
This is great.  But if you really look at your carbon footprint, street carts are not the place you want to start!  A light bulb is nothing compared with the electricity used by the AC in one fancy restaurant, to say nothing of the food court in a big mall. Nothing.  So why make a priority of doing this?  The article in the Age hints at other reasons. First is the basic principle of greenwash-- looking like you're doing something is more important than doing it:
In the first phase, those vendors will be provided with the carts around the Commonwealth Games Village, main stadia and also those areas that were main attraction centres for tourists. Subsequently, the carts will be given to the vendors from other areas.
And maybe "security" has something to do with it.  The article goes on to say:
Besides, they will also be fitted with closed-circuit television cameras. "These cameras may be connected to local control rooms and will be of great help on security matters as it would help in keeping an eye on the happenings going around in a particular market or a commercial space," said an official.
Again, a few solar powered light bulbs will not make eating "greener" in Delhi. But it may make Delhi look greener to CWG tourists who don't know better...

3. Shelia Dikshit: Flyovers will help make Delhi "pollution free by 2010"
I wouldn't have believed this, but way back in 2007, The Hindu ran an article called "Pollution Free Delhi by 2010, says Shelia."  Well, we haven't quite gotten there, but I'm sure we will any day now!  One of the things the CM says will help us in that quest are flyovers!  (I never realized all those flyovers were being built to reduce our carbon emissions.)
The Delhi Government, Ms. Dikshit said, had already constructed 63 flyovers to reduce idle time of cars and consequent carbon emissions. For the Commonwealth Games, she said, another 28 flyovers and bridges are being constructed for better connectivity and traffic management and for beautification of the Capital.
Now I have to confess something about flyovers: they may be expensive, but they do help move traffic.  And traffic, as anyone in Delhi knows, is very bad these days.  The problem with flyovers and roads in general is that there is ample research to show that the more you build, the more people drive.  So they are not likely to make us use less fossil fuels, but more.  

Interestingly, back in 2007, the CM was singing the praise of CNG powered vehicles, including autorickshaws.  In this article, she says:
“In the past six years, all old commercial vehicles have been phased out and 1 lakh vehicles involved in public transport in Delhi have been put on clean CNG fuel that has helped in substantial improvement in the ambient air quality of the city."
OK, so that's a quick lesson in greenwash, Delhi style. Have a great day!


  1. Just a small typo "a Kabir Arora" can you correct it. LOL

  2. Thank, Kabir. I think there are probably worse typos than that in this post; feeling a bit rushed today!

  3. The government will try and reduce the number of cars on the road when hell freezes over. More cars are good for the economy they say, and I can't disagree with that myopic view.

    The problem of course is the prisoner's dilemma. Even if Delhi wanted to do the right thing, it can't put itself at a disadvantage unless all the other cities do so and they won't do it unless...well you get the picture!

    I find the Supreme Court's observations regarding private vehicles damn cool though. Did you read it? This is a small excerpt:

    "Planet earth seems to be running out of options unless unorthodox and sometimes unpopular policies are pursued,"


    "While freedom to use personal vehicles is undeniable, the authorities, in the opinion of this court, have an obligation to ensure that such use of public roads has to be regulated.... Road space can't be monopolized by one mode of transport when bulk of the population depends on public transport."

    Don't you just love our courts?

  4. @Bhagwad--thanks for sharing that ruling; it's always refreshing to see common sense in high places!

    As for cars, I think it's a classic long term vs. short term problem. India can continue to produce impressive growth statistics that are driven by consumption by very few people--in terms of percentages of the whole population. But I'm not sure if that's the only way to grow; moreover, I'm more and more convinced it isn't sustainable! Which means it can't go on forever. I wish I had all the answers, but I am confident of one thing: we've got to talk and think a lot about these problems or we'll be in trouble sooner than we think.

    Nice to see you!


What do you think?