Saturday, June 18, 2011

Rising Off-Grid Urban Challenges in India !!

From the New York Times, June 8th, 2011

"To compensate for electricity blackouts, Gurgaon’s companies and real estate developers operate massive diesel generators capable of powering small towns. No water? Drill private borewells. No public transportation? Companies employ hundreds of private buses and taxis. Worried about crime? Gurgaon has almost four times as many private security guards as police officers"

Clearly there is no one right answer to any of these questions or one strategy for all urban challenges. As the bureaucracy will have it, there is no single department which can address all.

A most common answer we hear for all problems in a city is transport. Oh, the number of cars on road are increasing every day. The fuel prices are going up, congestion is increasing, travel times are increasing. But, not much attention is put on what's happening in the other sectors and what can be done. Here is an article from Reuters on June 16th, 2011, explaining how the health risks are increasing among the migrants from the rural to urban areas.

In India, Poor Health Risks Rise after Moving to City
(Reuters, June 16th, 2011)

Body fat, blood pressure and fasting insulin levels (a marker of diabetes risk) all increased within a decade of moving to a city, and for decades blood pressure and insulin continued to rise above the levels of their rural counterparts. The findings raise public health concerns as the global population progressively becomes more urban.

According to the United Nations, the growth change in India's urban population is 1.1 percent each year, while the change in the proportion of people in rural areas is declining by 0.37 percent.

I don't think we are here to discourage families from buying cars. If this is what is expected to make a mark in the society, then, by all means, if he/she has resources, they should by a car or a motorcycle. Our interest (from an air quality perspective) is in reducing the usage, so less emissions, meaning less pollution, and blue skies. Now, the question is, when will the various departments realize (and who will remind them) that it is not the roads or the highways that we need more, but alternative and safer modes of transport?

From the New York Times, June 14th, 2011

A booming suburb of New Delhi has become the symbol for development in India. It seems to have everything, except a functioning citywide sewer, reliable electricity or water, or decent roads.

What happens to (any) city transport, say tomorrow morning, the bus fleets tripled or quadrupled - how will the public react? They may be slow to adjust, but will they adjust and change their ways?

This is in fact an excellent single question survey - Will you change ways if there were more buses?

The question in cities like Gurgaon, which is undergoing rapid expansion, is lack of infrastructure to support the expansion. Even though, there is limited power supply in those parts, you will not see power shortages, because everything runs on DG sets.

Look at Mumbai. The video below doesn't show anything out of normal - as far as the Mumbai train operations and the concerned folks there. The rush is same as what I saw in 1996 and it is still the same. In 1996, the roads were a bit more empty than they are now, but the trains are the same. This is normal operations for the city and I do not think anybody is going to complain as long as the trains are running. That's livable for them.

What can we improve here from an air quality perspective? My personal opinion will be nothing much, unless there is a program to increase the current metro availability and use it to significantly increase the passenger usage - hoping that more of the cars and motorcycle passengers will shift.

In case of Delhi, these shifts could be significant in the coming years, because the metro system is new - just about getting coverage and people are recognizing the benefits. Same will be true for other cities like Hyderabad, Chennai, and Bangalore which are experiencing an increasing push for a metro system - hopefully, 5 to 10 years more.

Coming back to the cities and air pollution, lets get more specific, pollution along the roads, we have a mix of things - one from vehicle exhaust and one from dust on the roads. I see a lot of talk and discussions on vehicle exhaust and how we need to tighten fuel economy and emission standards, but no body talks about the dust on the roads. How often do we see this in discussions? Don't we have enough studies to show a significant amount of pollution in the cities is because of the re-suspension of dust on the roads? I understand that the re-suspension is because of the moving vehicles on the road, but what if, there was no dust on the roads to begin with?

Wet sweeping people, something done very rarely, but an effectively one. Who will listen to this? And who's responsibility is it to tell the city officials to do this, so that pollution is less?

Last year, at the entrance of the Palika Bazaar in Connaught place, the Delhi officials unveiled a giant air purifier. The European manufacturer, System Life, and their Indian business counterparts claim that this is the next innovative approach to clean the air and it is here for the better health of Delhites. What a joke that was... read more.

Environmental cartoonist Marc Roberts has graciously agreed and created a piece "Waiting to Exhale", based on a note "jumbo size vacuum cleaners to purify urban air?" I wrote with regards to a giant vacuum cleaner that Delhi Municipality installed in Central Delhi in March, 2010.

So, as an air group, what are we doing or where do we fit in?

We are not urban planners, so we will be not able to tell which road to build and which to not, but can estimate possible damages or benefits of a road on air quality. This is probably the least of the concerns for most of the road designers. But, what if, plans recommend to take care of the road dust?

As a air group, we can tell cities that they need a better waster management system, because unwanted garbage burning adds to air pollution, but cannot suggest how to manage waste. Point being, how do you influence change - sector by sector?

Of course, keeping in mind that there are no cookie cutter solutions and these will change from city to city. Nonetheless, the local good and a common denominator is better air quality.

Simplifying things to what can actually be managed (a) dust on the roads (b) garbage burning and (c) generator usage?

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