Cause and effect

Updated on: May 05, 2016

Clean air in Delhi requires more than just banning diesel cars

The best of intentions can sometimes fail if not implemented well enough, as Delhi’s struggle with cleaning up air quality shows. There was chaos on the capital’s roads this week following the Supreme Court’s order banning taxis with diesel engines, with effect from May 1. Taxi operators reacted to what is a potential loss of livelihood for them by blocking traffic at major intersections, even as commuters struggled with considerably reduced transport options. Suspended particulate matter (SPM) in the air is a major problem in Delhi and diesel engines, which emit less carbon dioxide compared to petrol engines, do release high levels of SPM. But is diesel alone the villain? Assuming it is, is our approach right to remedy the situation?

The answer to both questions is a clear ‘no’. Diesel engine vehicles are only one part of the problem. Construction dust, industrial emission and even open-air choolahs in the region surrounding the national capital are all responsible for the poor air quality, not to speak of the dust storms that blow in sand particles from the desert and the burning of agricultural waste in neighbouring Punjab and Haryana. The Supreme Court first took notice of Delhi’s air quality at the turn of the century when it banned diesel commercial vehicles from Delhi’s roads and ordered them to convert to CNG if they wished to ply in the capital. But the relief in terms of cleaner air proved temporary. A decade-and-a-half hence, we’re back to where we started, and this is despite CNG catching on as a fuel of choice not just in Delhi but in the entire National Capital Region. One reason could probably be that private diesel cars, which were not banned, multiplied during this period. But yet again, this points to a policy flaw as prices for diesel were pegged considerably lower than for petrol, prompting buyers to migrate towards the former fuel. The Centre made things worse with duty concessions for smaller diesel cars as if they polluted any less.

Banning diesel taxis now or implementing fancy schemes such as the odd-even traffic scheme may help reduce congestion and hence marginally lower emission levels overall, but they’re going to cause serious problems for the local economy, and indeed that of the nation’s too. It is estimated that the BPO industry, a large part of which is concentrated in the NCR, could end up losing as much as $1 billion in revenues in two weeks due to diesel taxis, which ferry its employees to and from work, staying off the roads. What we need is a holistic approach from policymakers and the courts. Public transport, including last-mile connectivity, needs to be improved, electric and hybrid vehicles need to be given a policy push, and vehicles over 15 years old should be taken off the roads. As for diesel taxis, one hopes that the court will approve the Centre’s submission on Thursday giving a clear five years before phasing them out.

Published on January 20, 2018

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