Don't give up the fight

 
By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

I smelt the air of Ahmedabad city this week. It took me back to the time when Delhi's air was much the same. When breathing was like wheezing, and everyone complained about constantly feeling ill. Delhi is a little better now. The air has less poison. But it was like a diseased city then. Now Ahmedabad, it seems to me, has taken over this dubious distinction. Or should I say Pune or Kolkata or Hyderabad -- all fighting for the pollution top spot? This when we know pollution is not a benign growth. It is a fast growing cancer. Toxic and deadly.

The entire Ahmedabad district, I was shocked to find out, has only some 1 million vehicles. Hyderabad district has some 1.2 million, Pune district even less -- 0.9 million. Shocked because Delhi city has some 2.6 million vehicles on the road today. As per monitoring data of the Central Pollution Control Board (cpcb), the levels of respirable suspended particulate matter (rspm) -- ambient tiny toxins -- is higher in Hyderabad than Delhi. Ahmedabad has caught up with Delhi. Less than half the vehicles, but the same or higher levels of pollution.

It could be that there are other reasons for air pollution in these cities. Nobody knows. Because nobody has cared to find out. But it is clear that vehicles belch smoke, and in larger and larger quantities than ever. In any case, why want to rediscover what we already know? We know that in Delhi, cleaning up vehicles has considerably cleaned up the air. Vehicles are a problem. How much is a relative issue.

But there is also a lesson for Delhi. If pollution is like cancer, then Delhi is not a 'survivor' as yet. It has only got a temporary remission, as our 'Anil Agarwal Clean Air Model' shows.

We developed this model to help us understand what the pollution load in the city due to vehicles was, and what would be the impact of a given policy intervention on pollution levels. It helps us to set the road map for future action -- to see what will work and how much.

This model is based on various parameters and we have worked hard to get the numbers right. We use what data exists and then work with it to refine it, based on what experience exists. We found it fascinating. Because one always comes across things one doesn't know anything about. We learnt, for instance, that there is really no reliable estimate of the number of vehicles on our roads today. So, how do you design policy? The registration data cumulatively adds vehicles from the date the register exists. Why? Because it never registers a vehicle that has been phased out.

A case readymade for mischief, if any. Produce vehicles or make them disappear if they suit the policy maker. The Central Road Research Institute, which prepared the base paper for the government's proposed Auto Fuel Policy has decided that it would suit its masters to show a clean and small fleet in the city. It uses some esoteric formula, checks up on a few vehicles on the road, and proclaims that Delhi in fact has less than 2 million vehicles on the road. It calmly halves the number of polluting two-wheelers in the city. Poof! Gone; problem has disappeared!

Our model takes an alternative route. It works to phase out vehicles from the registration data based on an age limit. It does not end up halving the population. Roughly 30 per cent is knocked off the list. We then look at the age of vehicles and their emissions profile -- the emissions of each type of vehicle per km travelled per year; how much do these vehicles travel each year by different estimates; what is the deterioration factor (emissions will increase as wear and tear increases); and other factors.

When we did this, we found that the first sum was that we are in a zero sum game. All gains made to reduce air pollution in the city would be lost in the coming years, as vehicles continued to grow. The second sum we found out was not such a bad one.

Let me explain. With this model in place, we can also now estimate what is possible. What needs to be done to reduce air pollution? We can quantify the impacts, and so venture a serious answer to this question. What would make the difference? Getting rid of vehicles, of course. Controlling numbers of private vehicles and phasing out old vehicles.

We did not need a model to tell us this. But where the model came into its own was in helping us to devise alternative policies and prescriptions for best results. If we cannot get rid of old cars, will moving these vehicles to cleaner fuel help? If so, how much? If we cannot get rid of two-wheelers, and have no options to convert these into cleaner fuel, then will advancing the emission norms of new two-wheelers help? If so, by how much? Would it be better to phase in zero-emission two-wheelers like battery driven vehicles? Or if we devised an effective inspection system to check the deterioration of vehicles on roads, would it help? By how much?

A powerful tool is also an enabling one. It helps us push for informed and knowledge-based governance on pollution management. Anil thought about this model because he wanted a tool for decision-making. But equally not a tool designed only for decision-makers. This is what we have today.

But it is only as effective as the action we take to push for change. One thing is crystal clear. The pace of pollution will overtake us if we give up the fight. The choice has to be ours. Are you listening, Ahmedabad, Pune, Kolkata -- all other Indian cities, big or small?

-- Sunita Narain

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