Fighting pollution in India: How drastic calls for action don’t work

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Updated: July 26, 2016 7:56 AM

A couple of days ago I was waiting for my turn at the local paan (beetle nut) shop.

Diesel car ban, National Green Tribunal, pollution levelsThe second major Delhi-based initiative was to mandate CNG as a fuel for public vehicles in the face of an international practice that it is better to mandate performance standards (in this case, exhaust standards) and not technologies (in this case, CNG). (AP)

A couple of days ago I was waiting for my turn at the local paan (beetle nut) shop. One of the other customers was complaining to his friend that his car which is more than ten years old has to be junked to make way for cleaner air in Delhi, and, he doesn’t know how he will recoup his loss as his first job doesn’t pay him that much. True to form, the paanwallah (the shop owner) responded in his worldly-wise manner, “Yeh sab draame baaz hain. Unko paryavaran se kya matlab” (This is all theatrics, they are not bothered about the environment).

As I walked away, chewing my paan, I was quite perturbed that the street had developed such a cynical view of our policymakers. Not a particularly comfortable situation to be in if we have to take a large number of steps in the next few years to clean up our environment. The problem is that policy makers and their advisors keep demanding ‘drastic’ actions and urgently. The fact that all the ‘drastic’ actions have not resulted in cleaner air and made life difficult for many could be the cause for this cynicism. The time has come for us as a society to think of improving our governance systems to include institutional mechanisms that make it possible for decisions to be based on well-considered evidence of facts that are arrived at in a more democratic manner.

We have done quite a bit of fire-fighting in Delhi in the name of cleaner air over the past two decades. Over 15 years ago, we shifted some of the major industries out of Delhi to ensure a cleaner environment. This resulted in tens of thousands of families losing their jobs and their children being thrown out of school, probably for ever. It also reduced formal job opportunities in Delhi so that today less than 10% of Delhi citizens have formal jobs. We never really discussed the possibilities of cleaning up the operation of those factories. Nor did we consider the possibility that those factories may harm populations at their new locations.

The second major Delhi-based initiative was to mandate CNG as a fuel for public vehicles in the face of an international practice that it is better to mandate performance standards (in this case, exhaust standards) and not technologies (in this case, CNG). This is because technology-based standards discourage innovation and competition and encourage monopolies. While the move gave us temporary relief from visible smoke, it also had some unintended effects. For example, buses became more expensive; so, a large number of students had to be shifted from bus transport to overloaded vans and many office-goers from contract buses to motorcycles. The CNG solution could be implemented in Delhi, but it did not help dozens of other polluted cities where CNG will not be available.

Health problems stemming from high pollution levels are serious in dozens of cities in India and not only in Delhi. As of today, there are only three reliable scientific studies that inform us about the sources of particulate pollution (PM2.5) in Delhi (Guttikiunda, S. et al 2013; Pant, P. et al 2015; Sharma, M. and Dikshit, O. 2015) and none for the less important cities around the country. According to all these studies, the contribution of vehicular emissions to PM2.5 is certainly less than 30%. Studies commissioned by CSIR and UNEP also show that actual number of personal vehicles operating on the roads of Delhi is less than 60% of the total number as old vehicles that are scrapped do not get deregistered. I have in my possession five registration certificates of cars that my family has junked in the last thee decades. Scientific samples of vehicles on the road in Delhi (data published in international journals) show that cars more than 15 years old and 11-15 years old comprise only 1% and 6% of the total. Therefore, even if all cars more than 10 years old were junked we may reduce total PM2.5 emissions by 0.2% in Delhi (30% X 10% X 7%). Even if we consider old cars to be grossly polluting, the benefit cannot be more than 1% as old cars are driven much less than new cars. It is quite clear that banning old cars will cause major bureaucratic and social headaches without any discernible health benefit.

These experiences should convince us that serious societal problems need thoughtful well-researched responses and not do-gooder ‘drastic’ actions that may not work in time. Putting people to hardship again and again without adequate rewards in terms of health benefits or livelihood gains makes governance even more difficult. We have reached this impasse because we are investing very little in academic institutions to conduct serious studies on issues of importance on a continuing basis. Our studies show that knowledge production in India today on a per capita basis is much less than that in China and even less than that in countries like Iran, South Africa, Brazil, etc.

To solve the problems of pollution in Indian cities we have to think of short-term and long-term solutions. The most objective short-term solution to vehicular pollution would be to strengthen ‘pollution under control’ (PUC) testing systems. The government can announce that within a year, the PUC test will become much more stringent and will test for PM2.5 and NOx emissions annually. Vehicles not conforming to the new tests will not be allowed on the road. Not only will everyone see such a ruling as fair, but also there will be no discrimination between CNG, petrol and diesel vehicles. Grossly polluting CNG vehicles will also go off the road.

For long-term action, we have no choice but to fund 10 or more research centres which work on these issues around the country for years to come. We need some dedicated researchers and thinkers who compete to provide us the most workable solutions. If we don’t do this, we will keep discussing our problems on Twitter for years without any clean air.

The author is distinguished professor, Shiv Nadar University, and guest professor, IIT Delhi

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