Around 10 pm on Saturday, the Loni border post, one of Delhi’s nine major entry points, is choked, the air heavy with the smell of burning fuel. Commercial vehicles, including a large number of heavy trucks, small cars and three-wheelers, jostle for space on the narrow, barely two-lane road, located on the city’s eastern fringes.
The problem isn’t peculiar to Loni, which marks the end of a long, arduous journey that begins at Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur, where National Highway 709B starts. The road, which cuts through the sugarcane belt of Muzaffarnagar, Kairana and Baghpat, is emblematic of the region’s air pollution crisis. The corridor is used by a large number of goods-laden trucks to venture into other parts of the country via Delhi. The end result: A deadly cocktail of dust, soot and toxic fumes along the stretch and the larger region, which has pushed Delhi-NCR to the brink of a health emergency.
So much so that the country’s highest court has taken note. According to the Supreme Court-mandated Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA), over 1.15 lakh trucks use Delhi as a transit point on a daily basis. Of the commercial vehicles entering Delhi, heavy-duty trucks alone are responsible for close to 61% of the total PM (particulate matter) and 58% of nitrogen dioxide.
Barely 20 km away, trucks heading towards Delhi swerve past the Delhi-Saharanpur Highway (NH 709B), just under one of the 46 minor bridges of the Eastern Peripheral Expressway (EPE).
Above, the expressway is quiet, engulfed in darkness, ahead of its long-awaited launch.
Starting today, many of the vehicles going via Delhi to parts of east, west and south India will be able to bypass the national capital, with the elevated 135-km EPE, touted as India’s first ‘smart’ highway, being thrown open to commercial vehicles.
The significance of the project is reflected in the fact that its foundation stone was laid by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on November 5, 2015. And he returned on Sunday to inaugurate it — with a speech and a massive roadshow.
Right on time
According to an official statement, the Rs 11,000-crore project was completed in “500 days against the scheduled target of 910”. According to officials, construction was halted for around 450 days due to agitation by farmers — whose land had to be acquired to build the highway — demanding enhanced compensation.
Going by a study carried out by the Centre, the commissioning of the EPE would lead to a reduction of around 27.48% in vehicular pollution levels in Delhi.
The need for the expressway was also flagged by The Indian Express in its series of reports on the pollution crisis in the capital, titled ‘Death By Breath’.
The project to construct Peripheral Expressways around Delhi was initiated in 2003 by the EPCA with the twin objective of decongesting and depolluting the city by diverting traffic not destined to end up here, said the government.
It comprises the Western Peripheral Expressway (WPE) and the EPE, connecting NH-1 and NH-2 from the western and eastern sides of the capital.
On May 10, the Supreme Court had expressed displeasure over the delay in inaugurating the EPE, and had asked the National Highways Authority of India to open it by May 31 — failing which, it said, the road would stand open to the public from June 1.
While that’s been done, officials said the Kundli-Manesar-Palwal WPE, which will complete the ring around the capital, is expected to be launched by June 2018. The Haryana government began work on the project in 2006, and the first deadline was 2009. In 2016, the stretch between Manesar and Palwal was inaugurated by union transport minister Nitin Gadkari.
To build the EPE, officials said 1,700 hectares of land had to be acquired at a cost of about Rs 5,900 crore, and over 9,000 workers and contractual staff were hired.
The EPE starts near NH1 in Kundli, Haryana, before entering Uttar Pradesh, where it touches Baghpat, Mawi Kalan and parts of Ghaziabad and Greater Noida, after which it enters Haryana through Sirsa. It ends at Palwal on NH-2 to join the WPE.
A day before its launch, the EPE was shut for security reasons. At Kundli, several security personnel manned the entry points. A local station house officer said only vehicles bearing passes from the deputy commissioner of Sonipat were being allowed.
He said a VVIP helipad had been built on the highway near Baghpat, where the inauguration programme was to be held. “Ye koi mamuli highway nahi hai (This is not an ordinary highway),” said the police officer, betraying the pride and excitement many in the area feel.
While choppers landing on highways aren’t new, the EPE has several unique features to its credit:
– It has a closed tolling system wherein toll is collected only on distance travelled by a vehicle.
– To discourage overloaded vehicles, a major cause of accidents and pollution, the expressway has weigh-in-motion devices installed at all its 30 entry points. This will enable authorities to mark overloaded vehicles and allow them only after unloading.
– The highway is also solar power-enabled. There are eight solar power plants on the corridor, with a capacity of 4 megawatt for lighting underpasses and running solar pumps for watering plants.
– It is also the first highway in the country to have drip irrigation on plantations along the medians, while provision of rainwater harvesting is available at a 500-metre interval on either side of the expressway.
– To ensure safety, there is a provision for auto-challans for speeding. Advanced cameras have been installed to capture speed of vehicles.
Sunita Narain, director general of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and an EPCA member, told The Indian Express: “The commissioning of the EPE is a very important development and credit goes to the Union government for completing it. It was stuck for years. It is important as there was no way to bypass Delhi from the UP side… this will provide that bypass.”
According to a CSE report, the heavy-duty truck segment is the biggest contributor to air pollution and the largest consumer of fossil fuels.
An IIT-Kanpur study on Delhi’s air pollution also shows that the two most consistent sources of PM10 and PM2.5, in both summer and winter, are secondary particles and vehicles.
Assessing the share of two-wheelers, three-wheelers, four-wheelers, trucks and light commercial vehicles in the total vehicular contribution shows that trucks and two-wheelers are the major polluters — contributing around 46% and 33% respectively to the vehicular pollution load.
Moreover, trucks rely on diesel which, multiple studies have attested, leads to the emission of carcinogens after combustion. Trucks also spew heat-trapping emissions that warm the climate, as per the CSE report.
“Globally, the heavy-duty sector represents just 11% of motor vehicles, but it is responsible for 46% of heat-trapping CO2 from vehicular sources and 71% of vehicular particulate emissions, which also contain black carbon,” said the study.
Another CSE report says that over the years, trucks have chosen to travel via Delhi despite the existence of numerous smaller bypass roads, which are not as well-built as the EPE. Had those been constructed in a better manner, the city could have been spared a lot of emissions, it adds.
S P Singh, senior fellow and coordinator, Indian Foundation of Transport Research and Training (IFTRT), said the imposition of the Environment Compensation Charge (ECC) has already acted as a deterrent for non-destined trucks.
He added that the main impact of the EPE would be region-wide, instead of only influencing Delhi’s pollution pattern. “Currently, many trucks are taking state highways in UP and Haryana to bypass Delhi, negotiating bad roads which ultimately affect their trade,” said Singh.
“The EPE provides them the right infrastructure, which will act as an incentive for them despite the relatively high toll tax. The high quality corridor will help them save in terms of maintenance charges, which will make up for the high toll charges. And the impact will not be limited to Delhi but across NCR. The pollution issue in Delhi cannot be treated in isolation and the EPE is a right step in that direction,” he added.
The ECC was levied in October 2015 through orders of the Supreme Court to reduce the number of commercial vehicles entering Delhi. The cess for two-axle trucks is Rs 700 (when empty) and Rs 1,400 when laden with goods. For three-axle trucks, the rates are Rs 1,300 and Rs 1,400 respectively; and for two-axle light commercial vehicles, the rates are Rs 700 and Rs 1,400.
However, in a recent report, the EPCA observed that there are “serious flaws” in the ECC collection system under the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC), resulting in a situation where it has failed to act as a deterrent.
The report said evidence has been found that the apex court’s directions are being flouted and efforts to mitigate pollution “derailed”. The observations were based on two audits — one conducted by VaaaN Infra Pvt Ltd and the other by CSE.
The VaaaN audit found that around 30,292 vehicles enter Delhi from 20 major and minor border points daily, while CSE pegged it at 44,800. VaaaN found that of the 30,292 commercial vehicles entering Delhi daily, 5,630 are not Delhi-bound, in violation of a Supreme Court order. The EPCA audit on non-destined trucks put the number at around 10,000.
“Vehicles paying full ECC are a mere 23%. Vehicles that pay half ECC or, in other words, are empty while entering Delhi are 35%. Vehicles carrying exempt goods are another 42%,” stated the VaaaN audit report.
The EPCA observed that it was not clear why such a large number of vehicles — 10,000 of roughly 30,000 entering Delhi daily — would be empty, as the city is not a manufacturing hub or a major transit point for goods.
Singh said that notwithstanding the loopholes, the illegality has come down due to the ECC, and the EPE will further discourage such attempts. “Trucks cannot be seen as villains. They are a national asset as the entire country will come to a halt if they stop carrying freight. The point is to focus on enhancing their quality and efficiency, while also mitigating the polluting effects,” he said.