The Tyranny of Cars

By Janet Moore Hujon

To those of us who have lived long enough, Shillong-today invariably takes us back to Shillong-yesterday simply because the apparent contrast is so great.  By reminding ourselves that once, and within living memory, there was another way to be, we derive some comfort until maddening frustration swiftly resumes total control.

Anyone looking at Shillong now cannot be blamed for believing that the word environment does not figure in anyone’s vocabulary.  What is going on?  The city is being choked to death by the high volume of cars on the roads and no one seems to care.  Is it because air pollution is virtually invisible that we do not pay any attention to it? So will the people of Shillong continue to remain passive partners in this marriage of so-called-convenience to the car?  If that is the plan then think again for it is a union that is not going to end happily ever after.

Air pollution causes ‘head-to-toe’ harm and the already well-known heart and lung damage is only “the tip of the iceberg”.  So warns the following article: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/ng-interactive/2019/may/17/air-pollution-may-be-damaging-every-organ-and-cell-in-the-body-finds-global-review

Pollutants from the air pass through the lungs to enter every organ of our bodies damaging not only our lungs but our hearts and brains, causing cancers, fertility problems, miscarriages and so on and so on…the list is frightening.

No wonder George Monbiot says it as it is: ‘Cars Are Killing Us’ (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/07/cars-killing-us-driving-environment-phase-out)

Monbiot may write with specific regard to Britain’s cities but the lethal consequence of pollution is not just a British problem,it is a global one.  Sadly,it does not look as if any radical change in Shillong is likely to happen soon.  The chaos on our just-about-usable city roads will only be made worse because neither the administration, nor the government nor the public will own it. Before any sensible solution is to be found we first have to accept that we all contribute to and are complicit in the problem. Nothing is done because it is always someone else’s fault.

Requesting land owners to part with land in order to facilitate road-widening schemes is misleadingbecause it encourages people to believe that with more room on the roads the snarls of traffic will magically untangle and we will all drive to our destinations with ease and speed.  Of course that does not happen.  What will or has happened is that existing cars will be joined by new ones because we tell ourselves that the road is now wide and welcoming.  Meanwhile any land surrendered by homeowners turns into a parking space. Not only is the road narrow once again, but also the use of a public space to park a privately owned vehicle is totally inconsiderate.  Convenience for one is gross inconvenience for others.  And does anyone reflect upon the potential greening effect of front gardens?  No.  That is mere pie-in-the-sky for unfazed by emissions, we continue to accommodate the four (or more)-wheeled god securely enthroned in our lives.

It is because the car supports a lifestyle we have chosen for ourselves that we see it as an indispensable part of our lives and not a threat. But given the health implications of air pollution, it is absolutely urgent to pause and reflect upon our use of cars.  Can we not limit the use of cars to the essential minimum?  Please also take note that passengers in the ‘safety’ of their cars imbibe more poison because trapped pollutants build up rather than dissipate.  Frequently these passengers happen to be our children patiently waiting to get to school.  If someone was holding a gun to your head and you were asked the above question, I am convinced you would readily say yes.  But real or not that gun is pointing at us and the finger on the trigger will continue to move unless we change course.

For now what we consider as our right to use cars has become the can we continue to kick down the road.  In the end however we are only deceiving ourselves, worsening traffic mayhem and most of all endangering our own health.

Has no one heard of the joys and health benefits of that activity called walking?  We walked from Kench’s Trace to school and college in Laitumkhrah, and it was only when I had to attend post-graduate classes in Mayurbhanj that I took the bus and that too only part of the way.  But all that seems feeble when I recall that my great-uncle walked from Mawlai to Khwan where he taught at the Union Christian College, and my grandfather (bi)cycled to Gauhati to sit his law exams, holding on to the back of buses to speed him home on the way back.  The can-do attitude was alive, walking and cycling!   We are a robust people but our car-dependent existences will deprive us of that natural asset.

Encouraging our children to walk and/or take the bus is still an option – it is healthy and would also dramatically reduce emissions compromising our health.  But for this to happen the government and/or educational institutions have to seriously invest in reliably run and regular public transport. The humble bus has to come back into its own and be seen as a lifeline and not an occasional plan put into practice so that policy-makers are seen to be doing something before they throw up their hands in despair.  A determination to solve should replace a defeatist attitude, and any argument that cars savetime should be immediately binned given that traffic jams regularly bring cars to a standstill.

In addition to bus services, banning cars from certain parts of the city would also dramatically lower levels of pollution. People need to reclaim the streets.  The free-for-all scramble in Police Bazaar, which is everybody’s nightmare,has got to stop and the long-suffering public rewarded for years of tolerance.  The pedestrianisation of our commercial centre(s) has got to be seen as a sensible healthy solution.  Imposing heavy parking charges is not enough as it is not likely to deter the affluent.  Moreover the ability to pay the charge does not mean pollution magicallydisappears.  So jettison the idea that the car is central to our lives and learn to regard it as an aid and not a constant companion to be called upon just because it is there.

While arguing against the over-use of the car, I am well aware that the livelihoods of many depend on local or tourist taxis and the latter are at the heart of the revenue-earning tourism industry.  This is why it is so important that the departments of transport and tourism talk to each other in order to frame policies that will protect both the environment and our livelihoods.  Abusing the former will eventually rob us of the latter.  No self-respecting tourist will pay to visit a ruined paradise.

The natural world is our collective responsibility so stop waiting for someone else to lead the way.  If our children are going to inherit the earth into which we were born, then now is the time to take all the necessary steps to safeguard that birthright.

Interestingly enough when Khasis venture outdoors to reinvigorate both mind and body they refer to that exercise as going out to ‘bam lyer’  – literally to eat the air.  Now is that not food for thought.

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