Weighed down by extremely high levels of particles in the air, some Indian cities seem to be coming of age with regard to vehicular air pollution. Taking the cue from Delhi, where the drive to clean the air is spearheaded by the Supreme Court at the behest of the civil society, people are waking up to take a stand against the slow murder belching out of vehicle tailpipes. In most cases, it is voluntary agencies that are leading the fight in association with lawyers and physicians to find local solutions to the problem. A spate of public interest litigation in high courts have mounted pressure on the state governments to address air pollution problems. But many cities are still doing nothing about it. To assess how serious is the urban Indian getting about air quality, Down To Earth profiles four cities: Mumbai, Calcutta, Bangalore, Hyderabad

Published: Monday 31 July 2000


-- MUMBAI Death for Hire

Diesel taxis are raising hell. Their drivers are lodged in a pitched battle with the civil society

If you live in the business capital of India, it is not difficult to see the byproducts of the industrial boom. A constantly rising number of vehicles has sent the air pollution index soaring. About 300 vehicles are registered every day in the city, points out Vinay Mohan Lal, transport commissioner of Maharashtra. With one million motor vehicles on the roads of Mumbai and a vehicle density of 500 vehicles per square km, the city is clearly in for trouble. Confirming to the most pronounced pattern across the country, Mumbai is in the grip of serious problem with suspended particulate matter (SPM).

The average SPM concentration in Mumbai's air has increased considerably from about 200 microgramme per cubic metre (g/cum) in 1980 to 250 g/cum in 1991 and 298 g/cum in 1997. The sites with highest SPM levels, going up to 500 g/cum, are Maravali, Chembur, Sion, Parel and Mulund - all industrial areas with dense traffic. A whopping SPM level of 3,170 g/cum was recorded at Mahim Junction in the heart of the city.According to a 1996 World Bank report on Mumbai's air pollution, levels of particles smaller than 10 microns (PM10) were much higher than standards set by the World Health Organisation. Maximum values were six times the standard. The levels of oxides of nitrogen (NOX) are also worrying. The annual average NOX level of Mumbai has increased from about 25 g/cum in 1981 to 46 g/cum in 1993.

The transport sector is responsible for 54 per cent of the total SPM emissions and 52 per cent of NOX emissions in Mumbai, according to the World Bank report. Today, the contribution of vehicles to the total pollution is estimated to have gone up to 69 per cent.

Putting data to use
Air pollution data, so far buried in official files, has now spilled into the public domain to arm civil society groups in their war against air pollution. Says an alarmed Zennia Khajotia, representative of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Citizen's Leadership in Environmental Action and Networking (clean air), "It is shocking that the levels of respirable SPM (RSPM, which are smaller particles that go deeper into the respiratory tract), are 400-600 per cent above the permissible limits. Quite obviously, 97 per cent of the city's population lives in areas where pollution levels exceed guidelines laid down by the World Health Organisation." She draws attention to the fact that 220,000 children suffer from chronic bronchitis in Mumbai and 60 per cent of the police persons suffer from respiratory illnesses, including lung cancer.

That the government agencies have failed to implement air pollution abatement measures is a foregone conclusion. So, will Mumbai continue along its shortcut to hell? Not if some enthusiastic citizens' groups have their way - and they have been trying very hard. The cumulative efforts of these groups have set the ball rolling in the metro to curb the pollution menace.

The beginning of people's struggle
It all began with a public interest petition against air pollution filed in the Mumbai High Court in July 1999 by Sandip Rane. A cardiologist by profession, Rane had formed an organisation called the Smoke Affected Citizens' Forum (SARF) to fight the authorities against burning of waste in the dumping ground near Chembur, known as Mumbai's gas chamber. Rane says that even after winning the initial battle against the burning, a haze covered the entire city throughout the day. Being a physician, he could notice the rising incidence of chronic respiratory problems among children.

Rane started looking for daily ambient air quality data, which was very difficult as government agencies were uncooperative. It is only now that the Mumbai High Court has made it mandatory for all government agencies to give data to anyone seeking it. On getting the data, Rane was shocked. "Many people were aware of the air pollution problem and felt strongly about it. But they did not know how to go about fighting it," he says.Once Rane went to court, many other organisations filed intervention petitions to give the litigation added force. These included clean air, the Bombay Environmental Action Group (BEAG) and a group of concerned physicians.

Going beyond tail-pipery
Lal acknowledges that in June 1999, when he became the transport commissioner, the main official strategy to control vehicular pollution was the penchant for pollution under control (PUC) certification system, and even this was in a mess. There was no mechanism to check if the owner of the impounded vehicle had got the necessary work done. Lal enforced it with even greater vigour to ensure that PUC tests were conducted properly. The registration of vehicles with emissions beyond limits was suspended, meaning that these vehicles had to be taken off the road. The transport commissioner's office further stipulated that vehicles without a PUC certificate would not be given fuel. "These initiatives, taken in October-November 1999, were more or less without any legal backing. The court found these methods useful. In a December 1999 order, it legalised these actions," Lal says.

But this tail-pipery - pursuing vehicles with excessive emissions - does not help as it leaves out some crucial aspects of air quality management and puts all the blame on vehicle owners, without creating an atmosphere where air pollution is seen in all its complexities.

At this juncture, Rane and Lal were joined by several NGOs and citizens' groups who helped them to intensify the campaign and involve more and more local citizens and go beyond tail-pipery. Within the first year of its creation, clean air organised mass contact programmes to shape up public opinion. They held several rallies, meetings and public gatherings to voice concern over air pollution. The most successful was a rally held on December 19, 1999.In this, a motorcade of 50 vehicles, sporting banners against rising air pollution, followed the main arterial routes of the city. The vehicles included taxis and a best bus running on compressed natural gas (CNG). White cloths/sheets were hung by from the balconies and windows by the residents of buildings along the route, expressing support. As ordinary citizens became more involved with the campaign, the transport department started asking the public to call in and complain against polluting vehicles. Of the 8,500 complaints that came in against vehicles emitting black smoke, more than 90 per cent pertained to taxis, Lal says.

In the face of mounting public pressure, a series of court rulings followed between September 1999 and May 2000. Among these directions was the enforcement of India 2000 norms for non-commercial vehicles from January 1, 2000, and Euro ii norms for the same vehicles from January 1, 2001. A special committee of experts under the chair of the transport commissioner Lal was set up in December 1999 to recommend on air pollution control measures. This committee has representation from the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board among other official agencies and two NGOs - BEAG and clean air.

The recommendations finally submitted in April 2000 are a comprehensive listing of actions in the areas of vehicular technology, fuel quality, transportation planning and the problem of in-use vehicles. Advising the court on the nature of regional problems and appropriate local actions posed a serious challenge. Lal says the strategy was to hold a series of consultations with all agencies concerned and to document the ongoing air pollution case in the Supreme Court for the National Capital Region of Delhi.

The recommendations are paradoxical. At one level they are strident and at another, they are conservative. They include

l enforcement of Euro II emissions by October 2000, Euro iii norms by April 2002 and Euro IV norms by 2005

l provision of emission warranty for all transport vehicles

l fixing of the age of private vehicles, two-wheelers and cars

l registration of only four-stroke two-wheelers from October 2000 and increase in the use of CNG and introduction of alternate fuels like liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).

There is a recognition of menace that growing use of diesel is posing and there is some effort to control it as well. The committee has proposed a ban on registration of diesel taxis and autos, a tax of Rs 20,000 on new private diesel cars and a cess of Rs 10,000 on private diesel cars after they become 15 years old. But these measures are toothless in the face of the fact that people buy diesel cars despite the fact that they are costlier, a testimony to the huge savings that can be made due to the large price difference between petrol and diesel.

What looks most out of place is the soft option of allowing Euro II diesel buses and making CNG buses interchangeable with diesel buses that comply with emission norms. This is most unsuitable in a city like Mumbai with high levels of particulate pollution.Some of the actions have been proposed without taking into account the emerging scientific evidence on the potential harmful effects, replacing one problem with another. The proposal to introduce reformulated petrol, which does not have the carcinogenic benzene, does not take into consideration the tight regulations needed on the use of some oxygenates. For example, the California Air Resources Board is contemplating a ban on an oxygenate called MTBE as it can have extremely toxic effects, resulting in groundwater contamination.

The action plan would have been more effective if there were clear indications of pollutants that need to be addressed on a priority basis. For example, if particulate pollution was prioritised for immediate action, it would have precluded all possibilities of allowing a strong bias in favour of diesel buses.

Growing concern over dieselisation
Concern for growing use of diesel and its link with high particulate pollution is already quite pronounced in Mumbai. Diesel taxis are considered a bane. Of the 55,500 taxis operating in Mumbai city, 25,000 run on diesel. About 10,000 use three-cylinder diesel engines imported after getting scrapped in Southeast Asian countries, including Japan. These taxis, mostly Premier Padminis, were made to run on four-cylinder petrol engines. Lal points out that converting these to three-cylinder diesel engines to get more power and better economy would result in drastic increase in harmful emissions. Says Rane, "Given the alarming spm levels, we know the problem is diesel". Khajotia says several of these taxis use scrapped motorboat engines imported through the illegal market.

After the transport department asked all taxis to be brought in for inspection, it was found that over 70 per cent were more than 15 years old. The department decided to issue notices to all the vehicles more than 15 years old and ask them to come for physical fitness afresh. When Lal tried taking the taxi operators to task, they went on strike (see box: Striking the wrong chord). "The chief minister asked us to stop issuing notices due to political considerations," rues Lal. "George Fernandes, the Union defence minister, is the mentor of the taxi operator's union leader A L Quodros, who has a lot of political clout and can get away with a lot," explains Lal.

Public support for pollution abatement measures can be ensured only if the government assures proper implementation of the abatement measures. Though the state government took the lead in introducing CNG in Mumbai, it could not progress despite its popularity among the taxi drivers due to limited supply of gas. Frederick D'Sa, spokesperson for the Mumbai Taximen Union, claims that taxi drivers adopted CNG in the 1993, much before anybody thought about it but there was very little support from government agencies. "The Gas Authority of India Ltd (GAIL) had promised to put up 25 CNG filling stations in Mumbai by 1995. But CNG is available in only 16 stations, and not one of them is in southern Mumbai where most taxis ply. Taxis have to wait for an average of half an hour to two hours," he says.

Pollution is not our creation but a result of 50 years' of lethargy, of not manufacturing good vehicles, no research and development, no regulations, no accountability and no transparency," D'Sa retorts. He claims that in past seven years, 13,000 taxis have been converted to CNG, preventing 60 million litres of petrol from burning in the city in a year. In their affidavit to the court, the taxi operators say they are ready to go for CNG on a large scale provided the adequate number of filling stations are provided.

Another problem is that the trade union wants to replace diesel engines with old petrol engines to retrofit CNG kits as diesel engines cannot run on CNG. When D'Sa was quizzed about this problem, he said, "One does not require brand new engines for CNG. When old vehicles get scrapped, we can recondition those engines and use them with a CNG kit." But experts say that this will lead to high emissions and proper regulations should be put in place. Nevertheless, the fact that there is open debate on every issue that has to do with air pollution is a victory of the civil society. It is becoming easier to target the defaulting agencies and regulatory bodies thus building pressure for accountability and action. People are now pointing fingers at the bigger villains like the public sector oil companies.

The biggest skunk in the whole process is the oil industry," Rane observes. "They are just out to make profits, least interested in moving an inch to lower the pollution levels in the city," he adds. Lal agrees. "We know that the Reliance refinery at Jamnagar is already producing good quality fuel. But they are not being allowed to sell it locally. While all the good quality fuel goes abroad, the public sector oil companies continue to give us relatively poor quality fuel," says Lal. Khajotia of clean air says, "A complete lack of cooperation on part of the oil industry and spin tactics of the vehicular manufacturers are together trying to make the errant taxi drivers look like saints."

No matter how bad the pollution scene, things are beginning to look up in Mumbai. If the civil society keeps up the pressure and refuses to buckle down under pressure from business houses and politicians, there are chances that the city may be a better place to breathe in.

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