Urban air pollution, especially in Delhi, has reached alarming levels and raised severe health concerns among residents. It arises from a combination of prosperity, poverty and policy failures.
Poverty-related pollution comes from biomass burning. Some of it is already reducing due to the spread of LPG, as far as cooking fuels are concerned. However, garbage burning is prevalent when solid waste management is poor and composting of garden and tree waste is not enforced. The transport sector is a major source of urban air pollution, particularly in Delhi, where the number of vehicles has multiplied several fold over the last two decades. The drop in pollution levels that we saw in the early years of the millennium due to the shift to CNG shows the importance of vehicle emissions in Delhi’s air pollution. This gain has been wiped out due to the subsequent phenomenal increase in vehicle population. Clearly, another technology infusion that can lead to a severe drop in pollution is desperately required.
Apportionment studies, which determine what pollutants are due to which activity, are often old and relate to the earlier context when vehicle explosion had not taken place. Therefore, the key question is what has changed since the last study, and in which direction. For example, road dust and cooking with biomass may have gone down in Delhi, whereas the number of vehicles, especially diesel, has gone up. Construction dust growth may slow down once there is less space to build. So, these studies should be standardised across cities and updated regularly.
The introduction of stricter emissions norms of Euro V and VI specifications can be that technology. This will require high-quality fuels, as used in developed countries. Euro V and VI norms could reduce particulate matter from diesel vehicles by 80 per cent — a major source of particulate matter, though other pollutants are catching up rapidly. This is better than Bharat IV, our present norm, though automobile companies still manufacture Bharat III vehicles, which emit twice as much particulate matter as Bharat IV. Euro VI standards will reduce HC and NOx by 40 per cent over Bharat IV and by 70 per cent over Bharat III. We have been following the European pollution norms for vehicles, some years after Europe adopts them, and renaming them Bharat III, IV, etc. It is time we leapfrogged EU norms for all vehicles, given our population, poor nutritional status and inadequate medical services.
The petroleum-refining industries claim to have spent Rs 40,000 crore to change to Euro IV norms and that another Rs 35,000 crore will be needed to change to Euro VI. A total of Rs 75,000 crore may sound like a lot but its impact on the price of petrol and diesel will be only about Rs 1 per litre. Another reason — or excuse — given to postpone the introduction of stricter norms is that opponents claim the change must be for the whole country or not at all. Yet, Bharat IV was first implemented only in 13 cities and there is a precedence for advancing norms for large cities, where they are needed more. True, there may be some percentage of vehicles that will fill up their tanks outside the city, where fuels are cheaper. But at least we will start seeing some reduction due to those who will use clean fuels.
Thus, the arguments to postpone advanced norms are not convincing, especially when the delays result in severe health consequences. Yes, the financing for the quality change is an issue that needs to be addressed. But luckily we are in the era of cheap oil, saving billions due to the drop in oil prices, some of which can be used to upgrade fuel quality. The refineries are not even supplying Euro IV everywhere. They are not giving enough good-quality fuels needed even for Bharat IV vehicles. They need to be more cooperative and not pass the buck. Promotion of CNG-based private vehicles and supplying the necessary CNG for it is also a strategy that could work.
The other bottleneck is the action needed by the auto industry to modify vehicles to run on cleaner fuels. Persistent diesel subsidies in the past have led to an explosion of diesel cars, responsible for carcinogenic and other pollutants. The auto industry is also delaying the supply of vehicles that can run on clean fuels, which can cost more. Vehicle owners should bear that cost and not put the burden on the health of poorer citizens. Heavy-duty vehicles may need to spend Rs 1.5 lakh. Factory-made private CNG cars, not those fixed in neighbourhood garages, should be more readily available and promoted.
Long-term measures also involve switching to pollution-free electric vehicles that have not only zero air pollution, but also much lower noise pollution. This needs to start now, and a roadmap has to be created by the Centre, with pilot projects at a city level. Indeed, the gradual introduction of electric vehicles is necessary not only for four-wheelers but also for two- and three-wheelers. China is pushing ahead with electric two-wheelers. Although electric vehicles are currently high cost and consequently experience problems of demand, in future higher volumes and improvements in battery technology can reduce this. For example, in the case of LED lamps, the price fell from Rs 600 to Rs 200 on large-scale purchase by the government. The government can similarly force such change in the price of electric vehicles too.
Prior to the Copenhagen conference, then environment minister Jairam Ramesh announced the goal of reducing carbon intensity by 25 per cent by 2020 over 2005 levels. Moreover, there are already eight national missions for climate change announced by the prime minister’s climate council. Many other ministries, such as power, renewable energy and agriculture, are involved in the national climate missions to support a comprehensive approach to reducing carbon intensity. These steps were universally welcomed. Can we give a similar promise to our own people to reduce local pollution intensity?
It is Delhi today and many other cities tomorrow. Radical change with the strong support of the Central government and the backing of the prime minister himself are needed. To ensure everybody’s cooperation, coordination and strong management of the two mega industries — oil and auto — will be needed. Perhaps Swachh Bharat should include Swachh air and water. A roadmap for cleaner cities can be merged into the smart cities framework.
Meanwhile, options like reliable power supply that reduces the use of diesel generators and bypasses that divert truck traffic are weapons in the armoury in the comprehensive fight against pollution.
The right to drive cannot supercede the right to breathe. All stakeholders, including governments, would do well to get into the act of preserving clean air before the Supreme Court does.
The writer is executive director, Integrated Research and Action for Development (IRADe)