A new vehicle for clean air

The best way to improve Delhi’s toxic air is to massively augment public transportation systems.

Written by Sunita Narain | Updated: April 11, 2015 1:15 am
column, express column, pollution, delhi pollution, CNG, CSE, smoke, pollutants, delhi environment, Supreme court, delhi air (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

Roll down the window of your bulletproof car, Mr Prime Minister. The security threat is not the gun, it is the air of Delhi.” This was the headline of the public advertisement the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) issued some 16 years ago. This was when Delhi’s air was sick with black smoke, fuel and emission standards were virtually non-existent and motorisation was just beginning to take off. The agenda for action — also listed by the CSE in the public notice — was to advance the roadmap for fuel-emission standards, restrict diesel vehicles, and make the transition to a much cleaner fuel, compressed natural gas (CNG).

The rest is history. Amicus Curiae Harish Salve asked the Supreme Court to take firm action. It did. The city did leapfrog to CNG and the country also cleaned up its fuel and advanced emission standards for vehicles. The result was reduction in pollution; studies have recorded the impact in terms of benefits to health. More simply, we in Delhi could see stars. We even forgot that we had a problem called pollution.

But not anymore. Each year since 2007, pollution levels have risen to reach the dangerously toxic levels today. This winter, the level of PM 2.5 — tiny particles emitted from vehicles that can go deep into our lungs and enter the bloodstream — remained three to four times higher than the standard of safety. In December, the air was classified as “severely polluted” for over 65 per cent of the days. According to the government’s own air quality index, this would mean pollution is so bad that it would cause “respiratory effects even on healthy people”. It is unsafe to breathe. This is what we must realise.

So, what has happened to make Delhi, once again, wheeze, choke and die because of dirty air? The fact is that in the past decade, since the introduction of CNG, some things have changed. One, there has been an explosion of personal vehicles — a near 100 per cent increase in registration in Delhi alone. So, even as each car has become cleaner because of tighter emission standards and better quality of fuel, their number has increased exponentially. The net result on pollution is the same.

Second, while in 2000, diesel cars were only 4 per cent of total sales, this had increased to 50 per cent by mid-2000. India-style socialism meant that cheaper diesel (there is still a price differential between petrol and diesel) continues to be used by the rich car owner. Each diesel car is legally allowed to emit four to seven times more than the petrol variant. Pollution is inevitable.

Three, the cities around Delhi have grown. By 2007, as many as 1.2 million vehicles entered or left Delhi everyday, in the direction of Gurgaon, Faridabad, Noida or Ghaziabad. And as we have done nothing to provide connectivity by bus or rail, the number of vehicle trips has but naturally increased, and so has its pollution. In all this, vehicles remain the major contributor to toxic air pollutants — whatever automobile companies say, it is not dust or leaf burning or even diesel from generator sets. These add to pollution. But not enough to cause the hell we breathe today.

There is one new pollution source — non-vehicle, which has made an entry post mid-2000. Punjab and Haryana directed farmers to delay paddy transplantation to save on groundwater usage in peak summer. But now there is no time for farmers to harvest paddy and grow wheat. They burn the straw. So, in October and November, just as winter inversion is settling in, this fire makes its way to the already polluted airshed of Delhi. We choke.

It is not as if governments don’t know what to do. Deliberations on a comprehensive action plan for clean air, which listed what needed to be done in the short and long term, started in 2012. By the time it got completed, elections were held. Then the lieutenant governor set up another committee to prepare another action plan. After much confabulation, the same actions were listed. But no action was taken. Now we have new governments at the Centre and in the state. They are also busy asking for action plans. It is time we stopped finding new excuses not to act. It is clear that taking action to control this runaway pollution will be tough. But each month we waste in revising the action plan, we lose more life-years in terms of bad health. The 2012 study of over 11,000 school students in the city found that every third child has impaired lung function. This is unacceptable and deadly.

What, then, is the way ahead? The fact is that Delhi managed to turn the page on pollution in 2001. Can it do so again? My colleagues and I believe it can be done. We have put together an agenda for action — the second-generation reform package, which lists 12 big steps that need to be taken.

The most immediate is to have an aggressive roadmap for clean fuel and vehicle technology in the country. But this is not acceptable to powerful vehicle manufacturers. So, even as oil companies have started to supply cleaner fuel across north India from April 1, car companies have succeeded in getting an extension for the supply of clean vehicles from the surface transport ministry. This, knowing full well that it would significantly bring down pollution from diesel trucks entering the city. Now, the same car companies are busy arguing that they should continue to have a licence to pollute. They want 8-10 years to move to the cleaner vehicle technology that Europe uses today. These companies need to understand that we have all run out of time and air to breathe.

Other steps are equally urgent, from monitoring air quality to smog alerts, so that we know when we are advised to take precautions because of bad air. But most critically — the game changer you can call it — is the need to massively augment our public transportation systems, the bus, metro, footpaths and cycle tracks, so that we can take a bus and then cross the road or just walk. We also need car restraints. Parking rates and fines for illegal parking need to be increased and then enforced. Today, we have a handful of cranes and a sprinkling of traffic police to stop illegal parking. This cannot go on.

Let us be clear, actions for cleaning our air are within our reach. But only if we accept that polluted air is a killer. This slow murder must be stopped.

The writer is director general, the Centre for Science and Environment, Delhi

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