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Thursday, July 07, 2022

The long-term solution

Knee-jerk reactions can’t give us cleaner air. A slower, evidence-based approach will.

Written by Dinesh Mohan |
December 16, 2016 12:36:55 am
pollution, delhi pollution, delhi air quality, delhi hazardous industries, delhi pollution reduce, supreme court, delhi odd even, delhi cng, cng vehicles, pollution control, delhi pollution control, pollution problems, indian express news, india news, delhi news, indian express column We have to pause and reflect why the air gets worse every year. Just an increase in the number of vehicles can’t be trotted out as an excuse. (ILLUSTRATION BY C R Sasikumar)

All of us self-styled and other-styled experts should be gasping for ideas. Consider the following.

In 1996, the Supreme Court ordered the closure of hazardous industries in Delhi to reduce pollution instead of forcing them to clean up their act. This led to the unemployment of over a million people directly or indirectly. In 2002, the Supreme Court ordered that all buses, taxis and three-wheelers in Delhi should convert their engines to CNG to ensure a clean atmosphere. Recent newspaper reports suggest that the policymakers think that “drastic” actions like temporary use of the odd-even scheme, closing schools, factories, construction activities, etc., are a way forward.

All the above actions were based on advice from experts in the city and none of them could be considered harmful as far as controlling pollution in Delhi. However, we have to pause and reflect why the air gets worse every year. Just an increase in the number of vehicles can’t be trotted out as an excuse. Forcing disruptive policies on citizens that affect livelihoods but don’t ensure progressive improvements is bad for governance and makes people more cynical.

The first fact we have to recognise is that this is not a Delhi problem. Hundreds of cities in the country are as badly or worse polluted than Delhi. The smog that descended on Delhi over the past few weeks extends over large parts of North India. “Drastic” actions centred in Delhi are not going to solve the problem for citizens of India. For example, non-destined trucks are not supposed to enter Delhi. If citizens of Agra, Jaipur, Rohtak, Panipat and Meerut (also very polluted cities) made similar demands, it would become difficult for goods and food to reach Delhi.

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Therefore, we have to approach the problem in a more comprehensive manner and set in motion procedures and methods that ensure sensible policymaking over the next five to 10 years for all the cities in the country. In any case, it is quite certain that the air in Delhi will not improve in a hurry.

First of all, we have to ensure that four or five multidisciplinary centres for data gathering, research and policymaking are set up in academic institutions in the NCR with assured funding for the next five years. This should not cost more than Rs 15-20 crore a year. Their job would be to get reliable information about the sources of pollutants and their amounts in the air on a continuing basis, the interaction of various pollutants in the atmosphere, an evaluation of technologies needed that will work to reduce pollution from different sources, regulations and taxation/fiscal policies to achieve our aims, and governance systems that can make all this possible.

It is quite clear that many of the solutions being pushed today will not make any difference. Everyone wants to ban vehicles more than 15 years old. But the government has no idea how many vehicles exist in Delhi as very few personal vehicles are taken off the register.

According to surveys done by CSIR and IIT Delhi, the actual number of personal vehicles on the road are less than 60 per cent of those on the books and cars more than 15 years and between 11-15 years old comprise only 1 per cent and 6 per cent of the total respectively. It is not surprising that the government has been able to find less than 70 such vehicles as of now. According to the CPCB and CEEW, the odd-even experiment, which tried to keep 50 per cent of cars off the road, did not make a perceptible difference in atmospheric pollution.

Obviously, taking 1-6 per cent of the cars off the road will not make any difference at all and just gives a bad name to the government.

We are also giving a great deal of attention to tail pipe emissions by banning certain fuels and car types quite arbitrarily. What is known is that diesel engines produce more PM2.5 and less CO2 than petrol or CNG engines. On the other hand, both diesel and CNG engines produce more NOx than petrol engines. It is possible that higher densities of smog are also the result of greater amounts of NOx in the air.

But no one has measured the amount of NOx that CNG engines are emitting while in operation. All this has to be carefully measured and then policies made to set emission norms for new vehicles and testing norms for existing vehicles. Arbitrary bans on vehicles that have passed mandated fitness tests and quarterly pollution tests are not only unfair, but give us a bad reputation internationally.

The only way to control emissions is to set emission standards that debar unwanted vehicles automatically irrespective of the fuel used. The good news on this front is that the Government of India has mandated Euro 6 norms for vehicle emissions starting in 2020. That will do more for reducing tailpipe emissions than anything else.

Everyone is asking the government to reduce car use by promoting walking, cycling and public transport use. The fact is, people do not change their travelling patterns easily just because of the provision of more buses and metros. Most cities take about a decade to change behaviour patterns by making car use more expensive, parking impossible at destinations and bus travel faster than cars. At present, policies are moving in the opposite direction. According to researchers in Europe, pollution is proportional to the amount of road space in a city and walking is preferred when it is safe, accompanied by social activity on streets. Just buying more buses will not ensure their greater use.

We could start with an annual pollution tax of Rs 10 per cc of engine size for all vehicles, a parking fee of Rs 100 per day in all offices and banning free parking on government property. To reduce emissions from car use, we will have to rethink the construction of elevated roads in the city as they double the pollution at that location. We will also have to redesign signal-free roads and blocked right turns which force people to drive an extra 30-40 per cent to their destinations. In the long term, we will have to think of the role of shopping malls versus neighbourhood shops as the former encourage car use, resulting in more pollution and accidents.

It is assumed that just the provision of good footpaths and bicycle lanes will encourage people to walk and bicycle. This is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one. Gated communities, large institutional properties and guarded colonies force pedestrians and bicyclists to take long journeys around them. Fairly good footpaths are available in Lutyen’s Delhi and Chandigarh, but you hardly see them crowded with pedestrians. One of the reasons is that pedestrians probably find them to be very sterile environments. All they can see are high boundary walls and barbed wire fences. The architecture of buildings is not visible; there are no shops, restaurants, kiosks, offices or human activity to make their walk pleasant and interesting. There are no places to sit or loiter with friends or socialise with acquaintances.

Unless we allow a great deal of social activity along our urban streets, walking will not be a preferred option. All the city neighbourhoods in the world, where you see a large number of people walking by choice, have these characteristics with business activity on the ground floor and the presence of kiosks and street vendors along the foot paths.

All these changes will take time, but are the only ways forward that ensure a cleaner future for all times to come. Unless we take this slower and evidence-based approach, we will end up discussing this issue year after year as the air gets dirtier.

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The writer is Volvo Chair professor emeritus, IIT-Delhi

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