Steering the way

  • 14/11/2002

Steering the way New Delhi, 15 November
In 1998, Delhi witnessed one of the worst winters of the decade. For much of the season, the city was enveloped by a deadly smog. Respiratory illnesses were rising and there was an alarming increase in hospital admissions. As officials were caught up in the all-familiar inertia, the Supreme Court stepped in. What followed was a series of rulings that have laid the foundation for a roadmap to clean up Delhi's air. People already feel the difference. The air is much cleaner now than it was in 1998. But most people don't know exactly by how much emissions have come down.

"The public must come to grips with precise information rather than some generalities because they don't lend themselves to any action. People's state of air pollution report will help to spread information about the precise nature of the problem and solution. No one can be perfect but it helps to be as precise as you can," said Anil Agarwal, former chairperson of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). This was his clean air campaign message to the people in January 2000. This was also the beginning of a very rigorous number crunching process at CSE - in technical parlance a computer model to estimate the trends in vehicular emissions load and impact of different policy measures. The objective was to make people aware and understand what has been achieved due to the Supreme Court's intervention and how we must move ahead.

The model captures Anil's vision and his anguish. "None of us as of yet have enough information to know how to clean up Delhi's air with precision. But in two years we have done our best to identify key actions with as much precision as we can. So precision will come with time. It evolves. But make every effort not to advocate sloppy decisions." The clean air model is a people's model and a guard against sloppy decisions. People can use this to know precisely the impact of policies on air quality now and in the future. It can help to formulate policies, assess their impact and then push the government to act.

The CSE's Clean Air Model

Anger and action
So far the transition has come about only due to the Supreme Court's initiative, which forwarded Euro II emissions standards for new vehicles, lowered sulphur content in diesel and petrol to 500 ppm, mandated clean fuels like compressed natural gas (CNG) for public transport, and phased-out 15-year-old commercial vehicles. In addition, it ruled for better inspection and maintenance programme for in-use vehicles, strengthening of air quality monitoring and checking adulteration. These measures have made a visible impact and are setting the agenda for other cities as well. But much more needs to be done.

But these gains can be frittered away so easily because of the lackadaisical attitude of the government. For all its efforts the court actions have stabilised the runaway pollution - an achievement in a city that recorded particulate levels reaching as high as eight to nine times the standards. But it is still way above the permissible limit. Clearly, it is time to take a hard look at the decade-old unresolved question of what needs to be done to clean up the vehicular fleet.

But what would have happened if the Supreme Court had not intervened? With the help of the model, CSE set out to assess the impact of the apex court's rulings on air quality to compare it with a scenario of no action. CSE has found how frightening air quality levels would have been if people hadn't found support in the court (see graph: Courting change). Today it is imperative to understand whether the official roadmap available as Auto Fuel policy from the committee headed by R A Mashelkar, director-general of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, New Delhi, and the industry roadmap presented by the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM) in 2000 will help in keeping up the momentum. Results disappoint. If people of Delhi are to rely on the conservative official roadmap it will keep Delhi years behind and far away from clean air targets for a long time. Slow murder will continue.

The key challenge is to determine by how much the emission levels need to be reduced to achieve clean air round the year. But what is the standard for clean air? The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) defines clean air as achieving ambient levels that are 50 per cent of the standards set for each pollutant round the year. To estimate this, one needs to consider atmospheric factors - wind, temperatures, etc - that affect pollution concentration. Atmospheric dispersion models would then show how pollution from vehicles, industries, power plants, and other sources together with meteorological conditions influence air pollution concentration. This is CSE's task for the second phase of the ongoing process. Since vehicles are one of the largest contributors to air pollution load in the city, the best possible reduction will have to be planned in this sector alone.

CSE's model on emissions load estimation, therefore, charts a best practice approach. The objective was to find a combination of 'best actions' that will allow drastic dip in emissions load in the foreseeable future, 2015 at least. Critics will dub CSE's proposal as crazy - as this has not factored in any possible objection a priori. Cost effectiveness will be one of the favourite official excuses. But the message is clear: it is time to face the challenge. The threat to public health is from the ever increasing vehicular fleet. More than 100,000 vehicles are added to the fleet every year. Any impact from slow improvement in technology will get swamped.

How do we make our buses, trucks, two and three-wheelers and cars cleaner? There are wide technical and non-technical choices. The task is to identify the best combination and implement them within a tight time frame. But there is a method and rationale for juggling with the best shots. Policymakers need to recognise that these problems are unique to Indian cities. To overcome them, CSE proposes some simple guiding principles that must shape up the future clean vehicle technology policy. These are the lessons that must be learnt from the results of our model.

The results thrown up by the model are scary. Even if we indulge in the most maddening and fanciful exercise of picking the best practices, we are still way off the clean air target. Going by the 2001 air quality data, peak levels of respirable particulate pollution needs to be cut by 88 per cent, carbon monoxide by 95 per cent, nitrogen dioxide 70 per cent and peak benzene requires 76 per cent to meet the air quality standards. Imagine if we were to reduce vehicular emissions by same proportions, we would need vehicular particulate reduction by 90 per cent as well. But even with the best package we can reduce this level by only as much as 82 per cent. The future looks ominous. But it is time to also think fresh. And take hard action.

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