“Don’t touch my car” syndrome at cost of our health

It is ironical that the city has paced up action on commercial and public transport vehicles in the city – trucks, buses, autos and taxis – but nearly none on personal vehicles

By Anumita Roychowdhury
Published: Tuesday 22 December 2015

Photo: Vikas Choudhary

I always find it very amusing when tonnes of evidences show up the moment there is any talk of reducing pollution from personal vehicles. Complex modeling crunch rarified numbers to claim that vehicles – especially personal cars and two-wheelers –are a very small part of the problem and should be left alone. Take any policy step – short term or long term on the table – junking of old cars, odd and even number formula, restricting diesel cars and SUVs, increasing parking charges on cars or even giving dedicated space to buses on roads – the general refrain is, why touch cars.Deal with other pollution sources in the city and outside.Why are you loading action “only”on the poor cars? “Don’t-touch-my-car syndrome” is a colouring interpretation of air pollution science and policy mindset,and weakening action on all pollution sources. While the city has to do a lot more to control pollution from all sources, there cannot be any let up for personal vehicles. This is fogging the issue more than the smog outside.The new expert-speak in town is fogging the issue more than the smog outside.

For a moment, I actually got worried. Has this city and all of us fighting air pollution misunderstood the source apportionment and pollution inventory studies and ignored all pollution sources but the cars? Have we really loaded action on cars and not on other pollution sources? To put the record straight, I immediately checked out action initiated on all pollution sources in Delhi and wow… I found that while all sources have some action to report – weak or strong –cars have nearly none other than the usual slow improvement in emissions standards that the national government does. The city has virtually done nothing to tame pollution from cars and two-wheelers that spew half of particulate pollution and a significant chunk of nitrogen oxides and toxics from all vehicles in the city.

This has only made me aware of the danger of misleading interpretation of air pollution science that instead of “clearing the air” mystifies more. This stokes fight over the size of the pollution pie for each source that these studies generate and depending on which slice you are batting for, you pitch your dissent. So the “expert-speak” does not inform the community about the status of action on each pollution source, what more needs to be done but only argues why action should be lessened on cars and why action on cars will not help. What is this glib talk all about when it is a no brainer that clean air target will need action on all sources.

The media gets awash with quotes from the expert-speak, citing studies from IIT Delhi and University of Birmingham only to say cars are a small part of the problem. This happens with repeated regularity whenever there is any talk of action on cars– parking restraints on cars, restraints on diesel cars, odd and even formula. There is almost a pattern to this discussion in the city today. But this passion and number game on pollution dies quickly, the moment the heat on cars is taken off. Steam around other pollution sources also evaporates.

So why don’t we first take a look at the action on each pollution source in Delhi? But I am doing this listing with a clear rider – and let me underscore that –that the city needs to do significantly a lot more in all sectors to pull down the horrendous peak of pollution to the level that World Health Organization (WHO) prescribes as safe. This should not give the impression that Delhi has done enough on other sources – no, not at all. But this listing will only make it clear how cars and two-wheelers are being let off the hook so easily. While doing this, I will keep in view themost comprehensive source apportionment study thatIIT Kanpur did for Delhi government. This not only gives a clear idea of whole range of pollution sources but also considers secondary particulates that are formed in the air from gases that come from vehicles and power plants.

What is the action taken on power plants and industry?

The IIT Kanpur study says stacks of power plants and industry together contribute 11 per cent of PM2.5 in Delhi – more power plants than industry.Over the last 15 years,Delhi has moved away from coal based power plants.Indraprastha, Pragati Power 1 and 2, and also Faridabad thermal power stations in NCR are all on natural gas. Coalbased power plant in Rajghat that was working at the time of IIT Kanpur study is now shut. Coalbased Badarpur plant is the only one currently working at 30 per cent of its pay load capacity and it has already been earmarked for closure as soon as the substation in Tughlakabad is made. This is now proposed to be shut during winter as an emergency measure. After shutting down of Badarpur plant, Delhi will not have any coal-based power plant. Dadri plant in National Capital Regionhas both coal and gas. It has now been proposed to put it entirely on gas. Thus air pollution measures have spurred huge investments to make the transition away from coal. We at Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) know how intensely we have been engaged to provide strong evidence from our recent rating of power plants in India to the Union government to get the power plant standards tightened and include more pollutants for regulation. But this has not caught the public imagination yet. All major air polluting industries were taken out of the city 15 years ago. The remaining small scale units need assessment in terms of fuel use. But stronger action is needed if this sector is still 11 per cent of the problem.

What is the action on domestic sources, including biomass stoves?

This contributes 12 per cent of Delhi’s PM2.5, says IIT Kanpur study.More than outdoor air pollution, indoor exposure of poor women to smoke is of concern and needs urgent action – even if it is 12 per cent of the outdoor air pollution. Though Delhi has implemented a project to make Delhi kerosene-free, where poor households have been given LPG connection, this could include only those who have legal documents like ration cards. Delhi now needsto speed up the plan to provide LPG connections to other poor households who were not covered in the scheme. This is an energy access issue that will have to be addressed. Delhi needs to accelerate its LPG programme for the poor and road side restaurants.

What is being done to cut municipal solid waste burning?

This according to the Kanpur IIT study is three per cent of PM2.5 problem in the city. There is already a legal ban on trash burning but it is very poorly enforced. Therefore, Supreme Court, in its December 16, 2015order,had directed Delhi government to come up with proper mechanism to control this. Municipal agencies will have to spruce up their garbage collection, disposal,facilities for composting of vegetative waste, among others. Community and resident welfare associations (RWAs)will have to be on a strong vigil. While policy decision has been taken, enforcement mechanism is weak.

What is being done to control dust from construction and roads?

Road dust,according to the IIT study,is a key polluter –36 per cent of PM2.5 in Delhi. Supreme Court has therefore, on December 16,gavea direction to Delhi government to come up with a detailed mechanism for road dust control. This should be in place before the next hearing in January. They will have to work with different strategies – street paving and design, vegetative barriers, sprinklers, and vacuum cleaning where ever possible as this will be expensive. Reducing traffic is also important.

Dust from construction, according to IIT study,is two per cent of PM2.5,and needsto be controlled. Guidelines exist for large construction – but need improvement and enforcement. Real estate industry and infrastructure providers need to be made liable. The NGT pressure for high penalty has led to issue of notices. There is pressure on Delhi government to spruce up enforcement. Moreover, Delhi has a recycling plant for construction and demolition waste. It, however, requires good policy to ensure market picks up the recycled material. 

What about vehicles – second largest emitters of PM2.5 after road dust?

It is ironical that the city has paced up action on commercial and public transport vehicles in the city –trucks, buses, autos and taxis --but nearly none on personal vehicles.

Clamp down on trucks – the trucks are the biggest polluters among all vehicle segments. The Supreme Court had asked trucks without business in Delhi not to enter Delhi way back in 2001. In its latest ruling on trucks,on December 16, 2015, the court has doubled the environment compensatory charge on all truck entering Delhi, based on polluter pay principle; stoppedentry of all pre-Euro III trucks into Delhi and asked for diversion of all non-destined trucks through alternative routes being earmarked by the governments in the NCR.The next step on card is immediate introduction of Bharat Stage IV emissions standards nationwide so that trucks can improve emissions by 80 per cent andalso leapfrog to Euro VI standards in 2020 to clean up all vehicles.Themeasures on trucks have already led to 30 per cent drop in truck numbers with commensurate reduction in emissions.

Heat on buses and para-transit: About 15 years ago. all buses, autos and taxis were mandated to move out of diesel and to CNG. Their age was fixed at 15 years. Now all taxis in the entire NCR have been directed by the Supreme Court to move to CNG by March 2016. There is an order to increase the number of buses to 10,000. Inadequate manufacturing capacity and lack of space for bus parking and terminal is holding up this strategy. The city is committing more land for car parks than bus parking. It is also interesting to see how the announcement of the odd and even formula has led the government to scrutanisemetro, bus, auto, and taxi network and services. Never before has the city gathered this kind of data or had such conversation to improve public transport services.

What about cars and two-wheelers? Virtually no action at the city level

When some expert bytes are asking why only car, I could barely find any specific action to control pollution from personal vehicles – cars and two wheelers. Our estimates show that if we include trucks from outside,then cars and two-wheelers are close to half of particulate load from the transport sector in Delhi. If we exclude outside trucks, their share will increase to 76 per cent of transport sector particulate load. But there are no restraints on personal vehicle usage. On the contrary, there are a range of hidden subsidies for promoting car usage. Personal vehicles get free parking in most places – especially in all residential areas or pay a pittance in commercial areas (only New Delhi Municipal Council  and couple of other Municipal Corporations have raised the rates marginally); parking is even free in big shopping malls. Cars pay a very small one time road tax compared to buses that pay much higher amount every year. There is no annual registration fee for personal vehicles.It is, therefore, cheaper to use personal vehicles than public transport. There is no polluter pay tax like that on trucks for these vehicles. But they occupy more road space, carry much less number of people and pollute more per capita.

Moreover, cars are taking full advantage of low tax diesel fuel. According to the IIT study and a survey,at least quarter of all cars on Delhi roads are already dieselised. Their survey in different parts of Delhi has shown that diesel cars are responsible for 60 to 70 per cent of PM2.5 from the vehicles. While buses, autos and taxis are not allowed on diesel, cars are dieselizing rapidly. Current emissions standards allow diesel cars to emit more particulate matter and nitrogen oxides (NOx)as compared to petrol cars. Adding one diesel car to fleet is equal to adding three to seven petrol cars. WHO has put diesel emissions in class I category of carcinogen for strong link with lung cancer – same as tobacco. India does not have clean diesel and fuel. Only at Euro VI level, diesel emissions close gap with petrol emissions. In fact, while delivering the order on December 16, 2015, the Chief Justice Bench had observed that if environment tax is imposed on all diesel cars, it will make car buyers conscious that they are buying polluting vehicles.

If everyone is comparing Beijing’s action with Delhi then they should know that Beijing has already banned diesel cars. Paris is also phasing out them out. Brazil does not allow diesel cars and more are to follow including eight cities in United Kingdom. Germany is known for strong anti-diesel campaign to get diesel cleaned up. But there is no action on diesel cars in India. It is only now that the Supreme Court has said luxury car segment cannot use low tax diesel in Delhi NCR.

Facts speak for themselves. Other sources of pollution are under pressure – though poorly enforced in some cases and should be improved and be made more stringent urgently.But the city has virtually done nothing to control pollution from personal vehicles.What are the detractors cribbing about?

Detractors ignore risk from direct exposure: The point that gets lost in the discussions is the fact that vehicles are also responsible for very high exposure that does not get captured in the policy discussion. The most recent draft report on health and air pollution drafted by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has underscored the importance of reducing direct and integrated exposure from all sources in micro environmentor within our breathing zone– be it biomass burning or tailpipes of vehicles. According to a study by Health Effect Institute, direct effect of vehicular pollution is maximum up to 500 metres from any road side. When they applied that criteria to Delhi, they found that more than 55 per cent of Delhi’s population lives within 500 metre from roads and therefore within the direct influence of vehicular pollution. Keeping in mind that vehicular fume contains some of the most deadly toxins and gases, these enhance public health risk for all of us. This is the reason why we need priority action on vehicles.

New spotlight on secondary particles makes vehicles and power plants even more important than dust: A seminal contribution of the IIT Kanpur study is its estimate of role of the gases from vehicles, power plants, industry and burning,that transform in the air to contribute to particulate pollution. Nitrogen oxides convert to nitrate particles and sulphurdioxide into sulphtaes, and push up the PM2.5 load in the air. This can be controlled only if primary gases from vehicles and stacks are reduced drastically. The study has also found high level of toxic carcinogenic gases like PAH (Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon) that is from vehicles and burning and adds to cancer risk in the city.

How about pollution blowing in from outside Delhi?Delhi cannot meet clean air target if the pollution and pollution sources from outside Delhi invade.In fact this fact has spurred the Supreme Court to broaden the ambit of the ongoing air pollution case to include the entire NCR. The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) is framing a plan for NCR.  But all state governments in NCR will have to be pushed to implement local action plans. If pollution is coming from NCR to Delhi, then Delhi is also exporting its pollution to NCR. So, there cannot be any let up for Delhi.

Are we ignoring stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana? No. The IIT Kanpur has found that this is a seasonal problem that largely occurs during the month of November. Car owners in Delhi should know that already a lot is happening on paddy burning in Punjab and Haryana. The only solution to this is the new technology that can till soil and drill seed simultaneously while mixing the paddy straw with the soil. Punjab government is giving 30 per cent subsidy for those seed drillers. The solution has reportedly led to 30 per cent drop in stubble burning cases this year. Paddy straw burning is already a cognizable offence under the Air Act, in Punjab.  

Why this resistance to action on cars and two-wheelers in Delhi?

Delhi cannot turn a blind eye to the millions of tailpipes of cars and two-wheelers: Clearly, the allegation that action is being forced only on cars is not true. On the contrary, more steps – though still inadequate --have been taken on other sources. It is time for car users to come out of the comfort of carsand become a part of the solutions.Do not keep looking for more problems for each solution that gets tabled. The latest that we have heard from IIT Delhiis that odd and even number formula will not work because vehicles’contribution to pollution during winter is low. But IIT Kanpur study has found vehicles share is at least a quarter of direct emissions in winter. Moreover, overall vehicles contribute as much as 40 per cent of the secondary particulate. These are actually quite a lot. Our monitoring has already shown very high exposure levels –several times higher than the background levels, on roads and near road side. The IIT Kanpur study has further found that during winter,the share of diesel vehicles in vehicles’ contribution to PM2.5 can be as high as 60-70 per cent. This is a serious matter.

Let us accept the fact, that reducing traffic volumes also makes a difference to city’s air. We have checked this out on major public holidays like Republic day, Independence Day and Dussehra when traffic volumes are even lower than the weekends. Our own analysis on Dussera this year had shown that when traffic volume was very low in the city, the ambient PM2.5 recorded by official monitoring stations had dropped by 45 per cent. Drastic cut in traffic volume is part of the pollution emergency action in cities like Beijing and Paris, among others.

Let us be clear. In this pollution emergency situation, Delhi with all its imperfection – poor data, weak institutions, weak laws and enforcement, lack of scientific expertise in urban design and transport planning, industry lobby, and fear of corruption and leakages  will still have to act urgently and immediately. Do what is possible now and also what is doable in the medium term. Do not make best the enemy of good.

It is shameful the way everyone has jumped to conclude why odd and even number programmewill not work. But no one is willing to say that we need to make it work to catalyse changes needed immediately to intensify public transport services – including metro, bus, taxis and autos and car pooling. Never before has Delhi planned these measures at a scale and in an organised way. No transport expert ever has complained loudly when bus services were withdrawn or curtailed in neighbourhoodsbecause of car congestion. This city that has failed to secure dedicated bus lanes because of strong opposition from car lobby does not see the advantage of using the oddand even initiative to demonstrate how it is possible to find alternatives and also improve overall efficiency of buses on roads with less load of vehicles. At least this will see beginning of bus lane system as a precursor for rapid bus transit. Getting the community to make the connection between public health and the importance of trying out alternative mobility arrangement is a critical first step forward.

But the detractors’ are arguing that with half the cars off the road, the reduced fleet will increase travel intensity and therefore cause more pollution. They ignore that sharing of reduced numbers will also increase overall system capacity to carry more people – one person per car can become at least three person per car; can allow more bus trips; more auto and taxi services. It is quite interesting to see how different offices and housing societies have begun to organisecar pooling and sharing system, plan shuttles and disseminate information about metro-feeder schedules. Such a template can push for bigger solutions in the longer run and make harder decisions acceptable in a city where arrogance of cars has blocked progress for so long.

Cities around the world are taking action on cars to control pollution: No city in the world has moved on pollution control without also addressing tailpipe emissions from cars. There are different models though. Car centric low density development in the US cities is beating the vehicle technology with the most stringent emissions standards in the world to reduce pollution impacts of motorisation. London and Stockholm while scaling up public transport, cycling and walking are also clamping down on car usage through congestion charging. Singapore has restrained cars by making ownership and usage very expensive. Hong Kong and Tokyo have brought in strong parking controls while scaling up public transport options. Nordic cities are changing road and urban design to enable cycling and walking and taxing cars higher. European cities like Berlin while improving walking and cycling infrastructure have introduced low emission zones where older polluting cars cannot enter. Beijing has capped the numbers of cars that can be sold in a year and have also banned diesel cars. It has also introducedlow emissions zones and is implementing odd and even number policy during smoggy days. European cities like Paris and UK cities are bringing in harsher controls on diesel cars for not being able to meet NOx standards.

Car walas – please own up and become a part of the solution

Crack down on all pollution sources in the city and outside quickly. But do not look for excuses to let off the cars. Let us be clear. If a poor farmer is caught burning paddy straw in Punjab today, he can be put behind bars; if a poor person is caught burning trash in Delhi, he is liable to pay a fine of Rs 5000. But all car and SUV owners,multiplying exponentially in our city, can continue to spew toxic gases, including cancer causing diesel particulates within our breathing zone, bend science to their convenience and pay nothing for inflicting irreparable health damage on us and our children.


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