False start

Pollution control agencies are as toothless as the automobile and fuel industry is apathetic to deteriorating urban air quality

Published: Wednesday 15 July 1998

-- the mandarins may just as well go on discussing air pollution control strategies forever without any effect on urban air quality. The basic flaw with the nebulous air quality planning exercise in India is that the regulators neither have a sense of urgency nor a clear, sharp focus to develop a proactive agenda and push for hard decisions.

Though consultations at the government level to frame action strategies to cut emissions is becoming increasingly popular, interest in dealing with the problem in a comprehensive manner is lacking. When polluters and the regulators attempt to frame an action plan, swords are drawn immediately to stave off pressures to commit to anything substantive. It is a war to guard interests rather than address the serious issue of poor air quality and the immediate risks to public health.

This was starkly evident in the recent workshop on an integrated approach to vehicular pollution control in Delhi, organised by the World Bank ( wb ) and the Delhi government. The objectives were to develop a consensus action plan to cut emissions by half in Delhi by 2005, improve upon the strategy framed earlier by the Delhi government, and to help identify projects that the wb can fund.

The resultant action plan focused on air quality standards, regulation and impact analysis, traffic management systems, and fuel and vehicle technology, among other things. But the priority list of action that was that was drawn up had no rationale to convince how would it will help halve emissions by 2005. For the best part, it only included more pilot projects and studies.

The workshop did not proceeded much beyond the original action plan of the Delhi government. The Centre for Science and Environment's ( cse 's) assessment of the original action plan of the Delhi government and the White Paper on Delhi's pollution by the ministry of environment and forests ( mef ) has shown that these strategies cannot arrest the plummeting air quality in the city. This becomes particularly alarming in view of the Central Pollution Control Board's ( cpcb 's) pointing out that vehicles will contribute 72 per cent of the pollution load in Delhi by the year 2000.

cse has repeatedly emphasised on the short-term but high-impact strategies to arrest this trend. On the top of the agenda should be a drastic improvement in the quality of fuel -- both diesel and petrol -- and comprehensive air monitoring to understand the magnitude of the problem. This will help in setting clear air quality targets and prioritisation of actions.

But lacking a clear set of priorities, planners are getting lost in a maze of action points. Alarming evidence of toxicity in Delhi's ambience -- the ambient concentration of carcinogen benzene has crossed 120 microgram per cubic metre -- failed to spur planners in the mef and the cpcb to action.

Despite recognising some of the legitimate concerns, such as lack of adequate data on air quality and an inventory of source-wise emissions, the forum has done nothing to push for more stringent standards and a tight schedule.

Demand for a proactive agenda was shot down by the fuel industry. The argument: if the automobile industry meets the 2000 emission standards with the help of low sulphur diesel, then why invest any further to cut sulphur levels. The industry demanded more evidence to prove that lower sulphur level in diesel will benefit the environment. Even their consent to lower benzene level was listed without a deadline.

There was strong resistance from both the fuel and automobile industries to any meaningful change. They were averse to publicising information about the emission characteristics of vehicles and fuel quality. As expected, the automobile industry was immediately on guard when strident demand was made to introduce warranty for emission performance during the lifetime of the vehicle.

Working towards a 'consensus' would therefore be meaningless if the concerned players are not prepared to commit to a proactive agenda and leave the discussion open ended for endless negotiation. Considering the fact that the blue print of the action plan which this workshop has attempted to draw up will validate a strategy to cost millions of dollars and subsequently have significant bearing on the air quality planning exercise in the rest of the country, it is necessary to push the players to commit to more stringent air quality targets.

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