Monday, December 17, 2007

Some thoughts on car free day in Mumbai

Mumbai’s Mayor, Dr. Shubha Raul, made an appeal yesterday for a Car-Free Day in Mumbai. I’ve framed a reply below.

Dear Madam,
Thank you for your appeal. It is heartening to see someone from Mumbai’s administrators actually make such an appeal. Even if we're lagging behind other countries on this initiative, I say better late than never. However, I find myself wondering whether I should respond to your appeal for the reasons outlined below.

1. How serious are your own efforts? – On Dec 15th, a group of energetic young people organized “Batti Bandh”. They made an appeal to Mumbaikars to shut down all electrical appliances for an hour. Your organization, the BMC, supported it. The response was dismal. After pledging your support and even shutting the lights of your bungalow, I’d like to ask why the BMC failed to do the same for their headquarters? Why were the hoardings in Mumbai still lit? If we could not achieve anything for one hour of voluntary efforts, how do you think your initiative will work for one full day?

2. How credible is the BMC? – It is very ironic when you say
Earlier, people used to take morning and evening strolls for fresh air, but even these are not pleasant nowadays, thanks to increasing emissions by vehicles. This is alarming.
Have you considered that perhaps the lack of open spaces could also be one reason impacting morning and evening strolls? A few weeks back, the BMC wanted to give away all our open spaces to private clubs because the BMC Chief, Shri Phatak, claimed that the BMC could not protect these open spaces from slums. Earlier, this year you disallowed debate on the Crawford Market redevelopment proposal. Given these questionable decisions how credible is the BMC to ask for a car-free day?

3. How clean is your home? – You say,
The number of people hospitalised with asthma, bronchitis, cancer, lung problems and eye diseases is on the rise. Moreover, noise pollution is causing hearing impairment, blood pressure and stress.
But did you know that between April and September this year, 122 BMC conservancy workers died due to hazardous working conditions [Source]. If you are so concerned about Mumbaikars being hospitalized due to diseases, perhaps you could also show some concern for your own workers, who are also Mumbaikars? Perhaps you could start by at least giving a cause of death for these employees? That’s the least they, and their families, deserve. If you cannot take care of your own employees – who are dying at the rate of 2 every 3 days – how will you take care of our city?

4. What about the other 364 days for public transport? You say
I want to make a beginning towards a pollution-free life for us all. I promise you that when the car-free day happens, I too will travel on local trains or BEST buses. I will expect all of you to follow.

Do not worry about insufficient public transport infrastructure. I assure BEST will add more commuter-friendly buses. If we do not take this initiative, what future will our children have in this era of global warming?
“Insufficient public transport” is not anything new to Mumbaikars. We deal with it everyday because we know the authorities aren’t interested in doing anything about our problems. A few days back, we even refused to travel in trains for a day because of the inhuman traveling conditions. The same trains that you traveled in because you were fed up with traffic on our roads. As for BEST buses, I’m sure you are aware that the BEST is, in fact, closing down some routes because of mounting losses. The writing on the wall has always been clear – Mumbai’s public transport can’t cope with its strains. Are your assurances valid only for one day for your appeal? How serious are you about the other 364 days?

5. What of the other 88%? You say
Once the idea of travelling by public transport catches on, I will encourage you all to do it twice or thrice a month to set an example before the world that we Indians do not lag behind in efforts to save the planet. You may say a once-a-month exercise will not save the city. But my reply is - a thousand-mile journey starts with a single step.
“Idea of public transport catches on?” Did you know that 88% of Mumbaikars already use public transport? So, we caught on to the idea a long time back. We endure the train and the buses, every day. You talk of a single step in a thousand-mile journey. But lakhs of Mumbai’s commuters have been taking single steps on Virar-Churchgate, Kalyan-CST journeys for ages. And their journey has only gotten tougher. For them, for these 88% of Mumbaikars, the car-free day is anyways meaningless. You issue front-page appeals to the 12% of Mumbai’s population that own cars. But what of that small 88% balance?