Editorial: Pollution populism

Publish IIT study. Don’t favour 2Ws, why ban diesel cars?

It is unfortunate that, at a time when the country’s capital is trying to battle pollution, the Delhi state government doesn’t seem to have concrete data on what exactly is causing the pollution. That is why, the same IIT Kanpur study that the Delhi government is relying on for its odd-even measures is also being cited by automobile firms to argue diesel engines are responsible for a very small share of pollutants—with other studies offering different explanations, the IIT-Kanpur study has to be made public so its data can be scrutinised by experts. Former IIT-Delhi professor Dinesh Mohan who points out that just around half the vehicles registered in Delhi are used—the one-time registration means, even if phased out, they continue to be on the records—to show their contribution to pollution is lower than generally believed, puts the vehicular pollution at 20% of the total in the city. What is even odder is that while most experts, including the National Green Tribunal, are sceptical of the odd-even scheme which allows cars with odd/even last digit-numberplates to ply on alternate days, the government plans to go ahead with it without any great level of preparation. And while individual two-wheelers may pollute less than cars, the fact that their numbers are so large means they are far more polluting as a class of vehicles; so, have they been kept out of the odd-even ban because the less well-heeled are more likely to be the Aam Aadmi Party’s political constituency? And if studies show that a large part of Delhi’s pollution comes from brick-kilns, how is this to be fixed?

With the same caveat of needing to have the data before any action is taken, a similar populism can be seen in the Supreme Court’s decision to, for the next 3 months, ban registration of diesel vehicles of over 2000cc in the capital—ostensibly, the idea is to not hurt the common man, but to ensure the rich don’t pollute the capital more with their large SUVs. While it makes sense to tax the rich—most of India’s personal taxes come from them anyway, not from the so-called common man—this cannot be a solution to the capital’s pollution problem. If it is indeed true that diesel vehicles are responsible for a great deal of pollution and need to be prevented from further multiplying—it has been this newspaper’s stated position that huge government subsidies are what drove even petrol-automakers like Suzuki into the diesel fold—surely the logic has to be extended all the way? After all, diesel engines are available in even sub-1,000cc category cars today, and comprise 70-80% of the capital’s dieselised fleet of personal vehicles. Eventually, of course, bans serve no real solution, the solution lies in tight emission standards—if a car meets the same emission standard, how does it matter whether it is fuelled by diesel or petrol; indeed, since CNG burns at a much higher temperature than petrol, chances are CNG vehicles emit more NOx than petrol engines do. No policy decision should be taken in the absence of data, but that’s exactly what is happening right now.

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