Hope on air quality: How air quality in north India can be transformed within 5 years

March 4, 2020 6:15 AM

The National Clean Air Program, started over a year back, has the goal of improving air quality by 25-30%. Since the causes of, and mitigation measures for air pollution are better understood now, it is time to raise the nation’s ambition to get fully clean air by 2025.

The National Clean Air Program, started over a year back, has the goal of improving air quality by 25-30%. (IE)

By Ajay Shankar

Air pollution in Delhi has been rightly described as a health emergency. In the Union budget, the finance minister enhanced the outlay for reducing air pollution to Rs 4,400 crore, almost a tenfold increase, and states should follow this lead. The National Clean Air Program, started over a year back, has the goal of improving air quality by 25-30%. Since the causes of, and mitigation measures for air pollution are better understood now, it is time to raise the nation’s ambition to getting fully clean air by 2025.

From April 1, this year, all auto manufacturers would be selling only BS-VI compliant vehicles, with BS-VI petrol and diesel being supplied across the country. Does this mean that air pollution would fall sharply? Unfortunately, no. A BS-III standard vehicle would continue to pollute in almost the same way even if it uses BS-VI fuel. The full benefits from the new standards would be experienced only when all the vehicles made for BS-IV, III, and II stop being used. This may take 15-20 years. Is there a way to accelerate this? During the 2008 financial crisis, Germany did something unusual to give relief to its auto industry in their “cash for clunkers” program. Under this, if an old vehicle was traded in for a new one, a substantial rebate was given.

In India, a 50% lower GST rate on the sale of a new vehicle, in case an older one is traded in, would amount to a 10% reduction in the price. This should work as an incentive. To begin with, this may be offered for all BS-II and III commercial vehicles. After two years, all BS-IV commercial vehicles older than five years may be covered under the scheme so that by 2025, only BS-VI commercial vehicles are on the road. A network of licenced state-of-the-art facilities, where each traded-in old vehicle is scrapped, with proper recycling and waste disposal, would naturally be a prerequisite. Apart from making a substantial dent on air pollution, this would also act as a major stimulus for the auto industry, which has been pleading for one.

Electric vehicles (EVs) having no air pollution have arrived. Auto companies have competitive offerings. But, for the charging stations, private investment is awaiting demand, and growth in demand is awaiting the charging infrastructure. A simple solution would be a policy directive to distribution companies to invest in the charging infrastructure, and to the state regulatory commissions to consider it as necessary investment, entitled for return. Once there is a network of public charging stations, and charging points in residential and office complexes, demand for EVs would zoom, reducing air pollution further.

The pathbreaking Ujjwala programme is targeted to get gas cooking cylinders and stoves to every rural household. However, poorer households are unable to afford these cylinders and continue to use biomass. The only way to complete the transition to clean cooking would be to subsidise gas cylinders for poor households. A sale price of Rs 300-350 for eight full cylinders a year should suffice. It would quickly fulfil Ujjwala’s objective of transforming women’s quality of life. This would reduce overall air pollution in northern India by 25%.

Clean decentralised electricity generation, and organic fertiliser production in small decentralised village units, using the cow dung that would no longer be used for cooking, is the next logical transformation. A separate attractive feed in tariff for electricity generated from cow dung at the village level would need to be announced by the discoms, with the approval of the SRCs. This should lead to private investment using all the cow dung in the country to generate electricity, with organic manure as a byproduct. This would increase rural incomes, including those of the women who would be supplying cow dung to electricity generating units. In a similar fashion, the problem of the burning of crop waste can be resolved using the market mechanism. Thermal plants could jointly announce an attractive price at which they would buy all the briquettes made from crop residue over the next five years. Coal can be substituted unto 10% by briquettes. This does not need any subsidy.

The FM, in her Budget speech, made the sensible policy announcement of closing old power stations. With surplus generating capacity, large new plants in the pipeline, and modest demand growth, it should be possible to shut down all old thermal power plants near cities, halving the problem of air pollution within a year. Badarpur thermal power plant should have been closed many years earlier. But, this would require firmness on the part of the central government. This would also reduce coal demand as an old, inefficient plant would be replaced by a new, efficient one.

Another policy nudge would go a long way in reducing air pollution. Cities are being covered by the gas grid. The Gas Distribution Companies may be mandated to cover all settlements, without compromising safety, and supply gas on a commercial basis to meet all the demand of industrial units as well as eating places without going into the status of their other permissions and legitimacy. If there are infirmities, the other regulatory authorities have enough powers of enforcement. If clean gas is used by industry instead of other polluting fuels, it could reduce reduce air pollution in the NCR by up to 20%. This, again, needs no subsidy, and the Gas Companies should find this profitable.

Getting clean air needs smart interventions. Subsidies can be avoided where policies and regulations would work. However, if subsidies are the only way forward, these should be provided fully. The health costs of air pollution are far too high and unacceptable. A transformation within five years is certainly possible.

Distinguished Fellow, Teri, & former Secretary, DIPP. Views are personal

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