Amid the extension of the countrywide lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19, a major revolutionary step pushed by the Government of India in the automotive sector might have gone unnoticed, viz the introduction of mandatory compliance with BS-VI (Bharat Stage-VI) emission norms from April 1, 2020. All automotive manufacturers and oil marketing companies worked hard against time to meet the April 1 deadline. These norms put India on par with Europe and the US to have the most fuel-efficient vehicular emission norms.

India has leapfrogged to BS-VI norms from BS-IV, which saw staggered introduction — first in 2010 for four- wheelers and then in 2017 for two-wheelers. With this stride, the emission norms of BS-VI models of two-wheelers in India are ahead of Europe (2021) and Japan (2022), and India is the first country to adopt such norms. This quick adoption is also unique, considering that India did not have any emission standards till the year 2000! Thus, all new vehicles that are sold from April 1, 2020 in India will be BS-VI compliant.

India’s AQI evels

The moot question now is whether India would accrue benefits in terms of better Air Quality Index (AQI) in the impending years, given the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant economic slowdown. Although India theoretically moved forward with better vehicle emission norms than even Europe and the US, the after-effect of Covid-19 would substantially reduce the sales of BS-VI vehicles in the impending years, and hence replacing BS-III and BS-IV vehicles would take much longer than expected. Given this, a stringent “Pollution Under Control (PUC)” certification is the only policy instrument available before the government to ensure that the AQI is maintained at reasonable levels immediately post-Covid.

As per the latest report by IQAir AirVisual’s 2019 World Air Quality report, 21 of the world’s top 30 cities with the worst air pollution are in India. According to a January 2018 survey by Greenpeace Environment Trust that covered 630 million Indians, 550 million live in areas where particulate matter exceeds the national standard, and many live in areas where air pollution levels are more than twice the stipulated standard. This emphasises the need for India to catch up with stringent emission standards on war footing.

By a positive stroke of serendipity, there has been a drastic reduction of Air Quality Index (AQI) in major Indian cities since the lockdown to combat Covid-19. Delhi has been witnessing AQI of 51 (moderate level) during the lockdown period, as against an AQI of more than 400 (hazardous level) in the first week of November 2019. Bengaluru, which has been witnessing moderate AQI levels before lockdown, is even better levels during the lockdown. However, once the lockdown is completely lifted and normal economic activities attain their full potential, the AQI would, in all probability, reach unhealthy or hazardous levels.

Vehicular emissions

A research paper published by the Ministry of Earth Sciences in October 2018 apportioned air pollution in Delhi to vehicular emissions, dust and industries at 41 per cent, 21.5 per cent and 18 per cent respectively. If there is substantial reduction in vehicular emissions from the BS-III and BS-IV vehicles by subscribing to PUC certification, it would mitigate the AQI of cities across India.

As per rough estimates, the total number of registered vehicles in India at present is about 350 million, and almost all of them subscribe to BS-III and BS-IV emission standards. With the delayed arrival of BS-VI vehicles on roads, cities need to be prepared with strong road emissions management to ensure that BS-III and BS-IV vehicles remain low-emitting while in use. As per the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act 2019, every motor vehicle plying (including CNG) should go for emission standard test after expiry of one year from the date of its first registration, and obtain a Pollution under Control Certificate (PUCC). These PUCCs need to be renewed every six months from the date of expiry.

The amended Act also increased the penalty for not having a valid PUCC to ₹ 10,000 from ₹1,000 and ₹2,000 for the first and second violations respectively. Data shows that the strict enforcement of increased penalties in Delhi made vehicle-owners comply much better, as more people turned up for getting PUCCs in Delhi. However, many other States have slashed the pollution fines by more than 60 per cent on populistic demand and invited more air pollution in their cities.

The performance of the Transport Departments of various States in ensuring that PUC certificate is acquired by every vehicle owner has been lacklustre. One reason could be the limited revenue-earning potential through PUC for the State governments in comparison with other sources such as vehicle registration, driving license, etc. The State Transport Departments engages private players for issuing PUC certificates and the vehicle owners shell out from ₹40-80 for two-wheelers and ₹50-150 for four-wheelers. Though the cost for acquiring PUCC by the vehicle-owner is meagre, its implementation has been less than desired.

It is imperative that implementation rules be framed so that all the vehicles plying on Indian roads have valid PUC certification. Penalising the violators through substantial fines is one measure which has been paying better dividends in making vehicle-owners go for PUC certification, whenever it is elapsed.

Better integration

The Supreme Court in 2018 had directed the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India (IRDA) that without a valid PUC certificate, insurance companies should not renew vehicle insurance policy. Although the IRDA issued a circular in this regard, the implementation of the SC order is still pending because of legal entanglements.

The States have been directed to link PUC data with the Vahaan 4.0 database of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH). This integrated database can turn out to be a game-changer for PUC implementation. The non-compliance of road transport departments of the States in integrating their database with the Vahaan 4.0 has been a stumbling block for the insurance companies to enforce the rule of “No PUC certificate, no insurance policy”, as insurance companies depend on Vahaan 4.0 database for the data on vehicles while issuing vehicle insurance policies. If the vehicle data by the State Transport Departments, insurance companies and other stakeholders are integrated into Vahaan 4.0 database, the complete vehicle data would become available at a single point to cross verify and collate data for the government agencies.

The introduction of BS-VI vehicles is indeed a big push towards improving AQI, but it would take many years for Indian cities to realise the reduction in air pollution. When India comes back to normalcy after a few months, the “physical distancing” will continue to rule the roost at least for a few more years till Covid-19 is completely eradicated from the world, and will push people to use private vehicles more than public transport and common carrier transport. To have air pollution at bay when things become normal, the focus should be on forcing the vehicle-owners to get and renew PUC certificates without delay, as that would possibly make a large contribution in combating air pollution.

The writers are public policy analysts