That’s the main lesson for fixing air pollution
Given the rapid decline in Delhi’s Air Quality Index (AQI)—211 versus Bangalore’s 38—and how breathing in the capital has become so hazardous, prime minister Narendra Modi has done well to launch a national AQI for monitoring the quality of air in major cities to begin with. Several reasons have been given for the sorry state of affairs, from the non-completion of the KMP expressway around Delhi which would have lowered the number of trucks crossing into the capital to the burning of agricultural waste and extensive construction. The real issue, however, as The Indian Express series on Delhi’s pollution pointed out, is that after a historic Supreme Court ruling made CNG mandatory for public transport, the capital’s pollution is back to where it was—respirable suspended particulate matter (RSPM) fell from 409 µg/m3 in 1995 to 191 µg/m3 in 2000 and then rose to 316 µg/m3, nearly 16 times the WHO suggested levels and twice that of Beijing. And the main reason for this is the inability of the central government to get its energy pricing right.
The main culprit here is diesel though kerosene is not far behind either. With diesel heavily subsidised, there was a dramatic shift in the number of cars using diesel which has resulted in the surge in RSPM—in the late 1990s, diesel-fuelled vehicles were just 4% of the total car sales in Delhi, this jumped to 24% in 2006 and is estimated to be about 50% of total sales in Delhi and NCR. Though diesel prices are now market-linked, they have already ended up creating a major source of pollution in the cities. In the last 3 years, diesel sales in the capital have risen nearly 40%. If this wasn’t bad enough, the hugely subsidised kerosene has also resulted in large-scale adulteration of fuel, once again adding to the pollution problem. And, in the case of CNG, not raising prices of natural gas has resulted in a lower production, as a result of which gas-fired power production has also reduced across the country—after touching 52.2 bcm in FY11, natural gas production was down to 35.4 bcm in FY14. While the AQI is a useful indicator of how poor the quality of air we breathe is, its utility lies in the government taking the right policy correctives based on it. While the petrol-diesel equation is well established, not hiking electricity tariffs, for instance, leads to electricity outages which, in turn, hikes the usage of diesel-powered generators. Not developing an efficient public transport, similarly, leads to greater demand for private vehicles which, in turn, adds to pollution.