While the apex court very recently cracked down on diesel pollution, the government has proposed a new formula to reduce Delhi’s traffic burden. But that may end up as a cosmetic move. What’s needed is to improve public transport and enforce existing laws.
By Ramesh Menon
The air pollution saga in Delhi gets murkier with each passing day as authorities helplessly grapple with it. It has been unable to get a fix on the dangerous reality that has made the capital the most polluted city of the world. It has put the health of its population in severe danger.However, the story of Delhi being a heavily polluted city is not new. Twenty-two years ago, I had done an exhaustive piece in India Today on precisely this topic. Today, the situation is worse and more serious. For more than two decades, Delhi has seen more than a thousand new vehicles hogging its streets every single day! It is now clear that the breaking point has been reached.
As no government really cracked down on pollution or strictly enforced norms, the Supreme Court this fortnight in a historic judgment banned the sale of high-end diesel luxury cars and SUVs with an engine capacity of 2,000 cc or more for a period of three months. It also made it mandatory for taxis to shift to CNG, slapped a huge tax on trucks entering Delhi and has taken 10-year-old commercial vehicles running on diesel off the city’s roads. The court ordered immediate paving of roadsides along with vacuum cleaning of roads as dust has emerged as a major health hazard. Municipal authorities have been asked to curb burning of waste.
Incidentally, diesel vehicles contribute hugely to particulate matter and nitrogen oxides that are rising in Delhi. These emissions were branded as human carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the WHO for their strong links with lung cancer.
A draft report of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, has shown that diesel vehicles are the major source of particulate matter emissions in the transport sector. In areas like upmarket Vasant Kunj, diesel vehicles were found to contribute 90 percent of particulate matter pollution.
The court extended the proposed ban to the National Capital Region as it feared that Delhites would go beyond the borders to purchase diesel cars. All city cabs, including app-based services such as Uber and Ola, will now have to move to CNG.
TARGETING THE RICH
Diesel was always subsidized as it was crucial to the transport sector. Every little increase in the price of diesel would make those of essential commodities sky-rocket. But, ironically, it helped the rich operate expensive diesel-run SUVs and luxury cars. Today, 30 percent of vehicles in Delhi run on diesel. The court pertinently asked why the rich were being allowed to pollute the capital and said that they can’t go around in luxury sedans and SUVs polluting the environment as people’s life were at stake.
Senior advocate Harish Salve who was the amicus curiae said that the blame must lie with diesel vehicles as one diesel car is equal to eight petrol cars as far as pollution is concerned. Senior advocate Dushyant Dave who appeared for automobile manufacturers argued that diesel vehicles formed only a small part of the overall number of vehicles and they should not be targeted as impractical curbs would affect thousands of workers and huge investments. He said even Beijing had not banned diesel vehicles. But the bench of Chief Justice TS Thakur and Justices AK Sikri and R Banumathi disagreed saying: “Let us stop it for three months. The worst polluted city in the world should take drastic measures.”
Earlier in October this year, the court had ordered that light duty vehicles would have to pay Rs 700 and three-axle vehicles would pay Rs 1,300 to enter Delhi as an “Environment Compensation Charge”. The court had taken note of a study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) which showed that about 23 percent of commercial vehicles and 40-60 percent of heavy trucks entering Delhi were actually using it as a transit point and were going to other places. Chief Justice Thakur said that the court might increase the charge by 100 percent for commercial vehicles travelling through Delhi. It is estimated that 80,000 trucks crossing Delhi everyday are adding to the problem.
Meanwhile, the Delhi government had requested the Supreme Court to give its stamp of approval to the formula to allow only odd number and even number cars on certain days, saying that it would embolden it if it did. The court said that it was up to the Delhi government to implement it if it thought it was the way forward. It is bound to lead to a lot of chaos as there are nearly 75 lakh vehicles and it would be impossible to monitor them. Delhi does not have enough traffic policemen to manage the present traffic and one can imagine what can happen when the formula kicks into force for a trial period of 15 days from January 1, 2016. Public transport in the capital is very inadequate and commuters and office-goers will find it a serious problem on all the days proposed. One of the reasons why there are so many cars on the road is that the public transport system has not evolved the way it has in cities like Mumbai. Clearly, stop-gap superficial methods to tackle air pollution are not going to help.
Diesel vehicles contribute hugely to particulate matter and nitrogen oxides pollution. WHO says these are carcinogenic as they have a strong link with lung cancer.
Sunita Narain, director-general of CSE told India Legal that the landmark decision of the Supreme Court to stop the registration of luxury diesel cars and SUVs in NCR, bar entry of pre-Euro III trucks into Delhi, double the environment compensation charge on all trucks entering Delhi and mandate all taxis in NCR to convert to CNG was achieved after fighting for over 12 years.
“These steps are expected to catalyze longer term solutions to clean up the air. This winter, Delhi has already experienced a rapid increase in pollution—PM2.5 levels have remained three to four times the standard and on smoggy days, the level can go up to six to seven times. The court had examined evidences of health impacts which indicate that the lung of every third child is impaired,” she said.
Anumita Roychowdhury, Centre for Science and Environment’s executive director, said: “Dieselization adds to the burden of particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and ozone which are the key pollutants. The current emissions standards in India legally allow diesel cars to emit more particulate matter and nitrogen oxides that are greater pollutants than petrol cars.”
FACTORS FOR POLLUTION
Another reason for rising pollution levels is that a lot of biomass and garbage is burnt in winter in Delhi and NCR. People often light fires to keep warm, using whatever they can gather. Little has been done to stop this.
Another factor is dust, which piles up on the roadsides and is often gathered and dumped on the divider, from where it again falls on to the road when the wind blows. Or it is just left on the road in heaps for it to spread again. There seems to be no organized time-bound system to clear it.
Then, there are frequent power cuts in the capital, leading people to use diesel generators which spew poisonous smoke. No one is talking of all these pollutants in this debate.
Then, there is adulterated fuel which again causes a lot of harm and there are hardly any checks on it. There have also been car-free days where commuters were encouraged to cycle. But there are no cycle tracks and cycling in the present chaotic traffic that cares little for etiquette or even traffic rules, is dangerous.
Clearly, knee-jerk reactions, like allowing cars only with certain numbers on a certain day, is not the answer as it is just not going to work. Improving public transport, fine-tuning the traffic management system by removing encroachments and stopping illegal parking and heavily fining polluting vehicles might be a more practical solution.