Give us today our daily threat

By Sunita Narain
Published: Saturday 31 July 2004

Twisha Lahiri works at the Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute in Kolkata. For some years now, she has been busy measuring the impact of air pollution on people in Kolkata and Delhi. Her results should worry us: 56 per cent of people in Kolkata and 46 per cent in Delhi she studied, suffered from impaired lung function. These were non-smokers. When she compared these results to a "control" population -- from rural and suburban areas, not so exposed -- she found a palpable difference. This isn't surprising. We know that the air in our cities is foul.

But what we also know is we are doing too little, too late, to tackle this problem. I was in Kolkata recently. Shocked at how black the air was, I constantly found myself repeating this homily. But I also realised that even the current prescriptions for air pollution control will not suffice here. Campaigning to clean up Delhi's air, the Centre for Science and Environment has constantly discussed the need to "leapfrog", beyond the current roadmap in the motorised industrialised world we grimly mimic. Europe may adopt Euro IV emission and technology norms today. Delhi is at the Euro II level - 10 years behind. So why can't we cut through the normative smog and reach current best levels by jumping stages, by making technology choices? Delhi cannot afford to go the incremental way of Europe or the US. It needs to reinvent strategy. Today.

In Kolkata I found myself presenting a version of this argument. Kolkata, I argue, should learn to leapfrog over Delhi. It must not wait to catch up; that would be disastrous. Why do I say this?

The city, like Delhi, is vehicle-laden -- from 300,000 vehicles in 1985 to over 900,000 in 2002. The vehicles, as in Delhi, are old and polluting toxin-belchers. But unlike Delhi, Kolkata has even fewer options to rework its pollution control paradigm. Its road space is limited -- less than 6 per cent of the city's land area, as compared to Delhi's abundant 16-18 per cent, now being frantically used to build more flyovers. Kolkata, with less than one fourth of Delhi's vehicles, is equally polluted. Levels of nitrogen oxide -- NOx, a pollutant that impairs lung functions -- are as high as Delhi and much above national ambient air standards. Equally high are levels of tiny and intensely toxic particulate matter (PM).

What are the city's options? The Kolkata high court has been pushing for cleaner air. It has directed the government to move towards gaseous fuels, following Delhi, and also to egg its dirty fleet of vehicles on to Euro II emission standards. But after much delay and obstruction, the court was forced to change tack and dilute its order of March 2004. The order makes evident the sheer frustration of the justices: "We record our displeasure and anguish at the inability of the state government to rise to the occasion and comply with the directions given by this court".

So, now Kolkata's belchers can trundle free, provided they meet, by October 2004, the 'new' emission norms the Central government has set for in-use vehicles. What does this mean? These are norms the Centre has been forced to revise -- such revision happened over 15 years ago. They pertain to what vehicles can emit when, at a roadside inspection centre, a vehicle turns up for a pollution-under-control certificate.

But what is shocking -- though not surprising, given the sheer scientific incompetence of state agencies, and the sheer recalcitrance of powerful automobile companies -- is that these norms are toothless in controlling pollutant levels in our cities' ambient air. For instance, levels for pollutants that sting Kolkatan lungs, namely NOx and PM, have not even been set in these new norms. In other words, when the vehicle turns up at the inspection centre, don't worry about bribery, or tailpipery, to let the freely-polluting vehicle off. The inspection centre is not even expected to check the emissions that befoul the city. Where's the bother?

The government of Kolkata pleads helplessness. I would call it callousness. It says its only other option is to request vehicles, if they fail these tests, to convert to Euro II. Ridiculous. For Kolkata would then regress, and not leapfrog: these standards were introduced in Delhi in 2000 and now, within 9 months, Euro III emission norms are expected in India's metros. The government's option effectively locks Kolkata into dirty technology, and against change. Let pollution rise, and lungs damage further. But try convincing the government.

Should we then argue that Kolkata should advance straight to Euro III norms? Would that make a difference? Not enough. These so-called gen-next norms will be equally ineffective; they are only marginally better. They will work when the scale of the problem needs a mere marginal improvement. More importantly, these gen-next norms do not even regulate NOx emissions from diesel vehicles that overrun our cities, including Kolkata. Government has graciously gifted us modern diesel technology that ensures NOx emissions three times higher than petrol vehicles.

Therefore Kolkata must learn from Delhi's mistakes. Firstly, if its vehicle numbers grow exponentially, it will be impossible to regulate emissions. So it must check this malevolent explosion, through vigorous investment in public transport. Secondly, the vehicle technology it adopts today must be even better than what Delhi did yesterday. It has to further push for change. It can: given the sheer demand for vehicles in Indian cities -- whether cars or two-wheelers -- surely the market is big and lucrative enough for real gen-next technology.

But the market is reactionary. It gives us cars it says we deserve. Vehicle-makers concur; we do not deserve any better than the foul air, and the damaged lungs, we breathe and have today.

-- Sunita Narain

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