An odd move

| Updated on March 09, 2018 Published on December 07, 2015

Delhi’s air pollution problem cannot be tackled by restrictions on private vehicles alone

It is difficult to see the Delhi government’s decision to allow plying of private vehicles with odd and even number registration numbers on alternate days making a serious dent in the capital’s air pollution levels. A similar coding system in Manila, meant to limit the number of cars, has contributed only to increasing corruption; also, the wealthy have found a way around the restriction, by buying a second or third car. The Delhi government’s move is typical of the knee-jerk and piecemeal efforts at the policy level to tackle the issue of air pollution in our haphazardly growing cities. India is home to seven of the ten most polluted cities in the world, with Delhi topping the list. Three more are in neighbouring Pakistan, which means the National Capital Region falls in one of the world’s most polluted climatic zones.

There is no doubt that Delhi’s deteriorating air quality is a public health problem which is approaching catastrophic levels. Last winter, 65 per cent of days were classified as “severely polluted” in Delhi, with air bad enough to cause respiratory problems even in healthy people. However, vehicle emissions account for only part of the problems. In fact, after Delhi became the first city in India to switch to unleaded petrol (the rest of the country followed in 1994) following a Supreme Court order, and after another SC order compelled all public transport vehicles, including taxis and autos, to switch to CNG, levels of nitrous oxide, sulphur and carbon monoxide in the air fell significantly. But particulate matter consists mainly of dust, largely from burgeoning construction activity, as well as particulate emissions from thermal plants, poorly maintained diesel-burning trucks and buses, as well as the burning of an estimated 500 million tonnes of agricultural waste every winter in neighbouring Punjab and Haryana. In the cold winter months, this smog is accentuated by the burning of urban waste including hazardous plastics, as well as open burning of rubbish. Another SC order, to levy an ‘environment compensation charge’ on diesel commercial vehicles entering the capital, has not taken off since the municipal authorities have said they do not have the infrastructure to collect it.

What is needed is holistic policy intervention, from better urban planning, better civic infrastructure, particularly solid waste management, vastly improved public transport, as well as better regulation and supervision of the construction sector. Polluting industries need to be made compliant or shut down, thermal power plants need to be relocated away from population clusters, and alternatives need to be found for India’s rising dependence on trucks for freight movement. The weather system does not observe civic boundaries, so any effort will not work unless coordinated across a climatic zone. One policy initiative which has worked has been the imposition of emission controls on the automotive sector. This needs to be complemented with strict implementation of vehicle fitness standards, and a policy incentive to switch to cleaner technology such as electric vehicles.

Published on December 07, 2015
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