Government must respond to the public health crisis: CSE

Demands stringent measures to cut toxic risk from burgeoning vehicle numbers
Government must respond to the public health crisis: CSE

Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has demanded strong action from the government to protect public health after WHO released its latest urban air quality database  which shows that India is among the group of countries with highest particulate matter (PM) levels. India's cities have the highest levels of PM10 and PM2.5 (particles with diameter of 10 microns and 2.5 microns) when compared to other cities.

Of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, 13 are in India, says the database. Delhi is among the most polluted cities in the world today. Are our national government and cities prepared to take urgent action to protect public health? CSE demanded to know.

Sunita Narain, director general of CSE said, “this database confirms our worst fears about how hazardous air pollution is in our region.”

Narain pointed out that 18 million years of healthy lives are lost due to illness burden that enhances the economic cost of pollution. Half of these deaths have been caused by ischemic heart disease triggered by exposure to air pollution and the rest due to stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lower respiratory track infection and lung cancer.

Said Anumita Roychowdhury, head of CSE’s clean air programme: “Indian cities are witnessing a rapid increase in air pollution and untamed motorisation. Cities need to curb pollution from all sources, but vehicles need special attention as they emit toxic fumes within our breathing zone. India needs urgent action to leapfrog vehicle technology and fuel quality, scale up public transport, reduce dependence on cars, and promote walking and cycling.”

Will Auto Fuel Policy Committee buckle under pressure?

Even now, India is awaiting a significant decision on the emissions standards roadmap for vehicles and fuel quality from the Auto Fuel Policy Committee under the chairmanship of Saumitra Chaudhury, member, Planning Commission. This is expected to be announced soon, before the UPA II government is dissolved.

The committee must respond effectively to the mounting evidences on worsening air quality and health damages associated with vehicular fumes, said Roychowdhury. It will be criminal if the committee buckles under pressure from the automobile industry and dismisses health evidences of air pollution as “insufficient and inconclusive” and downplays the role of vehicles. The ministry of petroleum and natural gas has set up a committee on auto-fuel policy to suggest roadmap until 2025.

Said Roychowdhury: “It is shocking that the terms of reference of the committee does not even include the mandate of meeting air quality standards and ensure stringent public health protection from toxic vehicular fume to introduce of cleaner standards quickly.  It is disturbing that when the country is motorising very rapidly, the automobile industry has not been given any roadmap to catch up with the clean emissions standards by 2020.”

Auto Fuel Policy Committee must deliver on the following:

  • Eliminate time lag in emissions standards: Rapid motorisation based on poor quality fuel and vehicle technology will make air pollution trend irreversible. Currently, only a few cities meet Euro IV or Bharat Stage IV standards that are nine years behind Europe. The rest of India gets Bharat Stage III standard fuel and vehicles, which are 14 years behind Europe. It will be unacceptable if the time lag instead of reducing gets further widened during this decade when motorisation is going to pace up. This will block rapid absorption of advanced emissions control systems needed to protect public health. The roadmap must enable India to close the time lag by introducing Euro VI emissions standards by 2020-21.
  • Need uniform emissions standards across the country by 2015: The practice of limiting improved emissions standards only to a few cities and to a smaller proportion of urban population violates the fundamental right to healthy life for all. This also does not allow trucks to move to cleaner fuel and technology and they heavily pollute cities during transit and aggravate pollution in cities. The Bharat Stage IV emissions standards in force only in a few cities must be extended across the country by 2015.
  • Introduce Euro VI standards by 2020-21 to address diesel toxicity: The WHO has officially declared diesel emissions as class I carcinogen for its strong link with lung cancer, putting it in the same class as tobacco smoking. While government of India has launched campaign to discourage tobacco smoking, it is encouraging dieselization of cars with favourable tax policy for fuel and lax emissions standards. As per the current norms diesel cars are allowed to emit three times more NOx compared to petrol. Particulate emissions are not regulated in petrol cars as these are negligible. Thus, adding one diesel car to the fleet is equal to adding three petrol cars in terms of NOx. This will be much more in terms of particulate emissions as emissions factors shows diesel cars emits five to seven times more particulate than petrol cars. Quick implementation of Euro VI emissions standards is needed because diesel emissions close gap with petrol emissions only at Euro VI stage and reduces the toxic risk.
  • Stringent emissions standards will give much larger health benefits: India has much bigger advantage in influencing the future stock of vehicles. All surveys show that the average age of Indian vehicles are relatively new – averaging five-seven years. Only in the commercial truck and bus sectors there are older vehicles. In the coming two decades the future vehicles stock will be several times higher than the existing stock. There is much bigger benefit in improving the future stock to ensure cleaner air. Without clean emissions standards pollution aftermath in cities will be even more severe.

The way forward

“Indian cities cannot afford to fall behind when its pollution levels are rising rapidly and reaching unbearable heights. Indian cities in grip of serious air pollution crisis need to gather momentum and implement hard measures to meet clean air standards,” said Narain. Following are some of the measures suggested by CSE:

  • The entire country must move to Bharat Stage IV by 2015. Cars should meet Bharat Stage V by 2016 and the country should leapfrog to Euro VI standards by 2020-21.
  • Cities need to implement clean air action plan to curb pollution from all sources to meet clean air standards in a time bound manner. Vehicles will need special attention. Cities need to protect their inherent strength in sustainable commuting practices – public transport, walking, cycling and city design.
  • Cities must inform people about the air quality on a daily basis and issue health alerts for people, especially, children, elderly, and those suffering from respiratory and cardiac problems to take precaution. This is the global best practice.

Related Stories

No stories found.
Down To Earth