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Smog has to be cleared

15 Comments
Nov 30, 2012 | From the print edition

imageLosing after winning is the worst feeling possible. This is how I feel looking out of my window at a thick pall of black smog engulfing my city. It was this time of the year, exactly 15 years ago, when Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) began its right-to-clean-air campaign. The air in Delhi was so foul one could hardly breathe. That was a time when air pollution was an unknown curse. Not much was known about its nature and the toxicity of the air contaminants.

Our first work was to establish that the air was dangerous for health. But it was not easy to prove since Indian scientists and officials dismissed the concerns. Indian automobile industry was not even bothered. This was the time when there were no standards for fuel or vehicle emission quality in the country. Indian fuel had 10,000 parts per million (ppm) of sulfur in it (currently it is 50 ppm).

As our campaign began to have an impact, government and industry went ballistic. We argued that the scale of pollution in Delhi was so big that we needed a leapfrog solution. Delhi could not take the incremental route to improve its fuel and vehicle standards. It needed a big idea for change, so we suggested that a transition to compressed natural gas (CNG) would be the best option because it emits far less particulate matter than petrol and diesel. If CNG was used in public transport vehicles by phasing out polluting buses and three-wheelers, then there would be double advantage: clean fuel for public transport, which, in turn, would move more people.

Government and automobile manufacturers tried every trick, from setting CNG buses on fire before crucial hearings in the Supreme Court to the Rs 100-crore defamation case against CSE filed by a major car manufacturer. Their position was that diesel was “clean”. This when a major US study had just been released to state that diesel was a likely “air carcinogen”.

These shenanigans did not work. The Supreme Court heard CSE and directed that use of diesel in buses would be banned. It imposed a daily penalty on diesel buses which did not convert to CNG. Simultaneously, fuel and vehicle standards were set and improved. All this improved Delhi’s air quality. Data shows that between 2002 and mid-2008 pollution stabilised in this growing city. We could actually breathe free, see the stars at night.

However, since 2008 air pollution levels have been rising steadily. Each winter it gets worse. This year as the cold began to set in, still air laden with moisture brought back the worst of the smoggy days in the city. It does not help that satellite images released by NASA show a thick plume of smoke caused by agricultural fires—farmers burn rice residue in the fields—is reaching Delhi. All in all, the gains the city made because of the CNG transition are lost.

The fact is that Delhi’s automobile population has imploded during this period. The city registers 1,000 vehicles a day. This is more than double of what it did in the pre-CNG period. Over 1.2 million car trips are made daily between Delhi and its neighbouring cities. That’s why even when each vehicle has become cleaner—fuel quality and vehicle emission standards have been progressively tightened at a considerable cost—air quality remains poor because of the drastic increase in the number of vehicles.

Worse, government policy has meant that diesel vehicles sell. The price differential between petrol and diesel gives diesel vehicles the edge. Car manufacturers are laughing their way to the bank, even as you and I choke. The fact is that diesel is now a confirmed carcinogen. The fact also is that diesel vehicles are “legally” allowed higher limits for NOx and particulate emissions as compared to petrol cars.

Such a situation guarantees that air pollution will increase to life-threatening proportions. What do we do?

Clearly, the city needs its second-generation reforms on air pollution fast. No small measures will do. In the past, there has been some effort to augment public transport. Some buses have been added in the government-run bus service, roughly 200 km of metro lines have been built and commissioned and a cluster scheme for private buses for public transport has been launched. But all this is just not enough. Delhi can and must reinvent its mobility system. Even till date, cars move only 15 per cent of the commuters in the city, yet pollution from cars is slowly killing us. Barely 40 per cent of the city commutes by private transport. The rest take bus or walk or cycle. Worse, there is absolutely no provision for public transport for inter-city travel. The only way ahead is to build a system where there are seamless options to take the metro, the bus, the para-transport vehicle and the bicycle. It has to be done on a scale that will make a difference. It has to be done immediately and together. This is what we learnt from the CNG transition.

The city also has to prohibit diesel. Either make it very expensive or just not allow its use in private cars. There is no other way to clean the air. I know the automobile industry will fight this; it will argue that its diesel is clean; that industry’s growth is necessary for India’s economic future. But remember that this fight is a fight of life and death.

AddThis

Thank you Sunita for such a thought provoking editorial. I have just returned to Melbourne after a short visit to Delhi for a conference (in early November) and I have been complaining to who ever is willing to listen about the abysmal state of pollution in Delhi. I actually came back with a bad cough, which I attribute to the pollution in Delhi (may be I am being unfair, but possibly not). You have articulated wonderfully all of my concerns. Out pursuit of material comforts of luxuries and our complete disregard for all public goods really is causing immense harm to us, to the next generation and everything in between. When will policy makers realize that!

Thanks again.

Pushkar Maitra, monash university.

20 November 2012
Posted by
Pushkar Maitra

CSE has to be commended for 1st level of Air Pollution Control for Delhi and should not back out from suggesting stringent 2nd level of Measures. So also there needs to be NCR Zonal Specific Measures like BRTS, Metro Phase-II, No Entry of .... vehicles in Specific Zones at specific times w.r.t. Inversion etc.
CSE should also publish similar set of Measures for other Metropolitan Cities and some of the most polluted Towns and Tier-II cities.

20 November 2012
Posted by
Kishore Kavadia

Do we need to travel so much? NO
Can't be live in our place for most of the time? NO

Do we need so many cars in the first place? NO.
Where do we draw the line? Let there be auction of cars and the
highest bidder may choose to buy.

--
warm regards,
Hirdesh Mishra

Tree is the answer to Climate Change

20 November 2012
Posted by
Hirdesh Mishra

Kudos to CSE and Sunita Narain for taking up the cudgels to clean Delhi air. Not only Delhi, nearly all the large towns specially of North India are getting choked in their own automobile smoke.
To clean up not only the Government but also the society will have to girdle up their loins, change our habits drastically and mend our ways. Else there is every chance that we may suffocate in our own smoke or drown in our own filth.

20 November 2012
Posted by
V.K. Joshi

Delhi is my home city although i have lived abroad in middle east over 3 decades.
A visit each year gets more and more unpleasant.
The dirt ,filth, exploding population , mad traffic, the dengue mosquitoes, the corruption and black money and ofcourse the pollution .The charm of the visit reduces each year. And yet very few seems to do anything. i tell my friends it is because of their silence that such situations exist.
We need many more Arvind kejriwals and Sunitas challenging the powers that be .

20 November 2012
Posted by
anil bhardwaj

The latest editorial touches upon a very relevant topic especially after Diwali. I believe that apart from the automobile related factors, the large scale construction in and around Delhi (for Commonwealth Games and numerous housing projects) has also contributed significantly to air pollution in NCR. This is the next challenge - regulating construction industry when government is one of the main offenders.

21 November 2012
Posted by
Shubhru Gupta

Your statements "Decrease diesel usage" and "Improve public transportation" are very good. But "There is no other way to clean the air" is wrong. When we came with a product design that clears air pollution completely and that costs less than 500 rupees per vehicle, you people did not have interest even to know the details.

"Simple solutions solve the problem. Complex solutions create business". There are many young scientists in India who can give simple solutions. Hope policy makers get little bit of time to listen to their ideas.

Indian patent number 2714/CHE/2012 has cost effective simple solution to clean air pollution.

21 November 2012
Posted by
Sitaram Naik

Air pollution in Delhi is no longer a simple temporary pollution issue. It has become a killer. Every day people are dying from respiratory infections, lung cancer and asthma. These are not hearsay but, hard statistics from government agencies and hospitals. No matter how hard the decisions may be, they have to be taken. Time is up for soft decisions and vacillations. It is a do die situation. Commerce can not be allowed to supersede life.

21 November 2012
Posted by
Dr JB Ratti

Glad to know the roots of thick smog in delhi have come in front. Serious actions need to be taken against this rising pollution threatening lives of the people of the city. We have come a long way- from walking to air travel. Why not coming again to the early means of transport which may be less in speed, but then is environment friendly?- Why not coming back to bicycles for young n children?- Why not denote some time to our health in this life than just being busy in making livelihood spurning our health?. Change can always take place but the takes little time, courage and most important unity of people.

21 November 2012
Posted by
Harshi

You have raised the issue in time. I would like to add certain facts which are not properly documented/reported.
In the outskirts of Delhi and in the neighbouring States large numbers of big size three wheelers ply to carry people from point to point. These three wheelers run on diesel and almost all of them are in very bad condition due to improper maintenance. As a result, these vehicles spew too much dark black smoke containing carbon particles and other pollutants in excess on account of improper burning of the diesel fuel. That too adds to the pollution of air in the entire area. Most (or may be all) these vehicles run without any registration etc., by paying monthly 'fees' to various officials. Hence, they never have to go for Pollution Under Control Check etc. and neither these are imposed any fine/challan etc. Then there are large numbers of motorized rickshaws for carrying goods in Delhi and in adjoining areas. These are fabricated using old and rejected scooters (two wheelers). The engine of the scooters and the handle are fitted to the rickshaws. Obviously, these rickshaws too cause heavy pollution of air as the engines are very old and inefficient. Also, most of the engines are two stroke ones. Also, these vehicles are not registered and hence these do not have to undergo pollution check etc.
There is urgent need to address these sources of vehicular air pollution as well.

21 November 2012
Posted by
Dr.M.A. Haque

Dear Sunitaji,

First of all, let me congratulate CSE for the good work done in cleaning the Air in Delhi and NCR. It was not a easy task and you/CSE have fought against all odds and achieved it. No doubt things changed.From 5000 ppm sulphur diesel we have come to 50 ppm diesel and CNG. That was a battle won, but you are fighting a war. If Diesel is problamatic so is CNG with its NOX. So stop chasing your CNG dream. Look into other aspects. I sincerely feel, Delhi is over populated with personal vehicles and the number is increasing day by day while roads remain the same.(No new roads). Whether it is CNG or 50 ppm sulphur Diesel/Petrol or LPG, things are not going to improve. The only option now is to curtail use of personal vehicles. Car owners should be discouraged to buy and use them. To start with, cars with either odd or even number should be allowed on a particular day. Levy hefty duties on Cars.Improve public transport system by proving AC buses thrugh public-private partnership.Provided deicated bus corridors all over Delhi.Promote use of electric trams.Please stop use of fossil fuels in Delhi. Discourage use of Cars in Delhi or for that matter all big cities. Public transport has to be subsidised. This can be done by doing away with Excise and other levies by Central Govt and Sales Tax by State Government for supplies made to State Transport and City Transport buses. If this is done the price of Diesel will come down by almost 40%. Please think on these lines not CNG alone.

22 November 2012
Posted by
R V Desai

Respected Sunita Madam,

I am a regular reader of your Editorial in Down to Earth. But this issue's I was not aware that much aware of it. Really it is very nice article. I wish good luck for your new endeviours in future

Best regards,

Vighneshwar Hegde
Mangalore

22 November 2012
Posted by
Vighneshwar Hegde

DEAR SUNITA MAM,

YOUR EDITORIAL IS VERY INTERESTING AND NO ONE CAN DENY THE FACTS RELATED TO AUTO MOBILE POLLUTION IN METROS.

IT IS TRUE THAT WITHOUT IMPLEMENTING BIO-ENERGY AS ALTERNATIVE TO FOSSIL FUEL.....WE JUST CAN'T CHANGE THE AMBIENT AIR QUALITY WITHIN THE PRESCRIBED LIMIT-AS SET BY POLLUTION CONTROL BOARD.

AT KOLKATA,WE ARE SO UNFORTUNATE THAT NO ALTERNATIVE FUEL IS AVAILABLE TO REPLACE DIESEL FOR REDUCING NOX AND PARTICULATE MATTERS.

PLEASE WRITE TO OUR HONORABLE CM Smt. MAMTA BANNERJEE FOR IMMEDIATE CNG/CBM INTRODUCTION OR TO RUN THE BUSES/TAXIS ON BIO-FUEL.IT IS NEED LESS TO MENTION THAT EVEN BIO-LUBRICANTS CAN DRASTICALLY REDUCE THE EMISSION LEVEL IF WE CAN USE AS ENGINE OIL.

ALSO HUGE QUANTITY SHELL GAS IS AVAILABLE NEAR RANIGUNJ/DURGAPUR TO REPLACE FURNACE OIL IN INDUSTRIES.

IT'S MATTER OF REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT STILL MORE THAN 18 YRS. OLD COMMERCIAL VEHICLES LIKE PRIVATE BUSES,TAXIS,LUXURY POOL CARS,GOODS CARRIERS ARE PLYING ON THE CITY ROAD REGULARLY VIOLATING THE POLLUTION NORMS/HC ORDER.

THE NUMBER OF SUCH VEHICLES IS OVER 1.5 LAKH IN KMA(KOL,HOW,HOOGLY,NORTH/SOUTH 24 PGS & PART OF NADIA).....WHO CARES?

PLEASE DO SOMETHING FOR THE CITY OF JOY.....CONSIDERING THE PUBLIC HEALTH HAZARDS.WE ARE HELPLESS & DISAPPOINTED.

22 November 2012
Posted by
somendra mohan ghosh

Dear Sunitaji,
Further to what I have said above, I request you to take lessons from the 'Pune Bus Day'. This Bus Day was planned 2 months in advance and support sought from all social organisations, media, politicians across all parties and corporates. A lot of more buses were put in service and new routes introduced. The result......roads were were not crowded.......fuel sales and consumption was reduced....,...pollution levels came down. It is worth repeating this 'Bus Day' model in cities like Delhi.

24 November 2012
Posted by
R V Desai

The problem of air pollution in all cities needs multiple solutions in addition to the ones highlighted in the article and the comments.
1 Lifestyle of society has to change and become holistic and society has to find out sustainable ways of best practices--work areas, residential areas, green areas/leisure areas and market areas need to be next to each other in well integrated neighbourhoods and facilitate walking/cycling and other physical activities. The internet needs to be used more--for telecommuting, work, shop, videoconferencing etc. rooftop gardens/urban agriculture/inhouse composting/inhouse sewage water reuse or recycling etc needs to become the norm. Friendliness/sociability/neighbourliness may increase if conducive environments are nurtured.

2 Town planning is to be integrated with transport planning of urban conglomerations and town planning needs to become conveniently participative by common citizenry via web based platforms.

3 Political will is needed to cut down the personal transport industry as was started and maintained in Singapore since its inception thru its visionary leader Lee Kuan Yew's policies on transport and urban development who substituted personal transport with a well integrated, convenient, cheap and fast mass transport of different types -bus, metro, taxi. Singapore's tranport policy and other best practices are not part of the average indian citizens' general knowledge base as these have not been highlighted through awards/films etc. (there used to be a class of people called the bards in english or marasi in punjabi who used to propagate good and bad stories from the present/past history and culture of the region--our media has to highlight the same example of good knowledge that used to be disseminated by their forebears )

4 Current restrictive policies for buses need to change --school buses, company staff buses and other forms of mass transport vehicles (including LCVs, modified 3 wheelers)should be allowed to ply commercially. CSE and other ngos can work on changing this restrictive transport policy of a bygone era.

5 Simultaneously regulation of vehicles is daily going down in quality and can be improved if there is political will which needs to be forced upon a few biggies in power.

5 Knowledgebase of best solutions in the transport sector should become conveniently accessible so that freedom of choice is there for the public.

17 March 2013
Posted by
Anonymous

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