Cracking the whip on pollution
The crackdown on diesel emissions from cars and trucks has caught the automobile industry on the wrong foot. Soon after the National Green Tribunal (NGT) stopped the registration of diesel cars in Delhi until January 6 and the Supreme Court ordered a ban on luxury diesel cars and SUVs in NCR, the automobile industry played the number game to prove that vehicles, especially diesel ones, are not the problem. The automobile industry claims that the number of diesel cars in the city is very small—only seven per cent of the total vehicles—and therefore, of no consequence. Vehicles overall are much less dangerous than road dust, say automobile honchos.
This stand is clearly challenged by the IIT study, which found that diesel vehicles, which comprise a quarter of the vehicle fleet, contribute to a large share of vehicular PM2.5 emissions in different parts of Delhi. Except in Rohini, where diesel cars contribute 20 per cent of PM2.5, diesel’s share is as high as 70-90 percent in Okhla, Vasant Kunj, and Dilshad Garden and about 60 percent in Pusa and Dwarka. Overall, all vehicles are the biggest emitters of pollution among combustion sources.
Industry can no longer be in a denial mode. Diesel cars are legally allowed to emit three times more NOx and seven times more particulate matter than petrol cars. These pollutants are rising in Delhi and many other cities. Adding one diesel car is equivalent to adding three to seven petrol cars on the roads. The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified diesel emissions as class I carcinogen—putting it in the same class as tobacco smoking—for strong links with lung cancer. Curbing dieselisation has to be a priority. The diesel car market, by shifting to bigger cars, is adding to toxic pollution. While the bulk of petrol car sales (87 percent) in the country sold in 2012 were below 1200 cc engine capacity, more than 40 percent diesel cars were above 1500 cc.
The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, while giving his verdict, established an important principle: rich car owners cannot misuse low-tax diesel for luxury consumption at the cost of public health.
Stronger action on trucks has also become necessary as the heavy duty vehicle industry has not yet moved to Bharat Stage IV standards that are the current standards in Delhi. The Centre will have to introduce Bharat Stage IV nationwide urgently to reduce truck emissions by 80 per cent and also leapfrog to Euro VI directly in 2020 to cut public health risk from all vehicles drastically. The government should also equalise the emissions standards of petrol and diesel cars.
Poisonous power plants
Cars are not the only problem leading to Delhi’s dirty air. Its thermal power sector, comprising two coal-based and four gas-based plants, is responsible for approximately 10 percent of the city’s air pollution. To counter this, the Delhi government on December 4, 2015, ordered the closure of the fuel-guzzling, coal-fired power plants in Badarpur and Rajghat. This approach is in line with WHO’s proposals in its 2014 global report to improve urban air quality. The report had ranked Delhi’s air as the world’s dirtiest. Beijing has adopted similar steps, with authorities announcing in 2013 that coal-fired power plants in the country would be converted to natural gas.
While the Rajghat power plant in Delhi is temporarily shut, the one in Badarpur, which is run by the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), remains operational despite ongoing public criticism and orders from NGT to control its emissions.
NTPC Badarpur is one of India’s oldest plants and has an installed capacity of 705 megawatt (MW). DPCC has repeatedly criticised it for not complying with the applicable particulate matter emission norms of 50 microgram per normal cubic metre (mg/Nm3). Since 2011, DPCC has issued several directives to NTPC Badarpur to control its emissions. But its efforts “have resulted in no meaningful action”, which compelled DPCC to issue the show-cause notice for the plant’s closure. Badarpur arguably does not even comply with the more general norm of 150 mg/Nm3. During various site visits by the Delhi-based think tank Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a thick and sooty plume of smoke was consistently observed from the plant’s stacks, strongly indicating that its emissions are higher than even this loose norm. CSE’s study of Badarpur’s emissions between April 2014 and March 2015 indicates that the plant was responsible for 78-89 percent of emissions from the entire thermal power sector.
The conventional logic that coal is a cheap source of power does not apply to Badarpur. The plant is generating power at Rs 6.04 per unit. NTPC Badarpur has submitted a tariff petition to the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission seeking permission to invest a whopping Rs 741 crore towards the plant’s renovation and modernisation that would drive the costs even higher. Understandably, Delhi’s distribution companies have been strongly advocating its closure.
One argument put forward in NTPC Badarpur’s defence is that the plant is the only stable source of supply to certain areas of south Delhi, with a direct connection to the Sarita Vihar, Okhla, and Mehrauli substations. CSE, however, believes that it is possible to shut down the plant, at least during winter, when air pollution is at its worst, without compromising on power supply. At a stakeholders meeting convened by Delhi’s power secretary Sukesh Jain in November 2015, the State Load Despatch Centre projected the winter peak at 515 MW for Sarita Vihar, Okhla and Mehrauli, thereby necessitating generation from the Badarpur plant. Distribution companies in Delhi echoed CSE and responded that NTPC Badarpur is not essential during winter. Indeed, more power could be sourced from the 330 MW Pragati I and 270 MW Indraprastha gas-based plants, both of which are significantly less polluting, and by drawing additional power through the Bamnauli line.
Alternatives to Badarpur powerhouse
The Delhi government can take a few other measures to ensure that the Badarpur plant operates at the lowest possible load throughout the year. The existing capacity of the Ballabgarh-Badarpur Double-Circuit line providing an alternate source of supply to Badarpur is currently constrained since it has reached the end of its life. Its existing capacity could be substantially increased by installing high-capacity High Temperature and Low Sag conductors.
Delhi Transco Limited (DTL) has planned a double circuit power line between Sarita Vihar and Pragati I, which was meant to become operational by March 2015. This line would provide an additional 400 MW of power supply to south Delhi, significantly reducing the load at the Badarpur plant for the rest of the year. Sarada Routray, a manager at DTL, assures CSE that “Badarpur can certainly be shut down in winter once the first phase of this line becomes operational in March 2016”.
The government should also expedite the establishment of its planned Inter-State Transmission System (ISTS), which consists of four new 400/220 kilo volt substations, for Delhi. ISTS was announced in January 2015 and was expected to become operational by 2017. ISTS Tughlakabad substation promises a permanent solution to the Badarpur plant and improved grid connectivity. But land for it is yet to be allocated and as a result the project has been delayed.
The city’s gas-based power plants, meanwhile, remain grossly underutilised. Bawana, Delhi’s latest, largest and most efficient gas plant is operating at a meagre 10 percent. The city’s gas-based power capacity amounts to 2,108 MW which could potentially meet over a third of Delhi’s peak power demand. Moreover, given the recent decline in gas prices, imported gas could provide a more attractive and less polluting fuel source.
Look for national solution
Delhi mirrors the public health crisis in the country. National ambient air quality data shows that close to half of the Indian cities have particulate levels that are officially classified as critical. Cities are in the grip of a multi-pollutant crisis, and smaller cities are more polluted than metro cities.
The way forward is clear. India needs a quick clean air action plan to control pollution from all sources. Vehicles need special attention. Their numbers should be controlled with an efficient public transport strategy, along with fiscal and parking measures. Diesel cars need to be restricted and the gap between diesel and petrol prices should be reduced. Equally important is a transition from coal dependence to more sustainable and less polluting sources of power supply. A public health disaster in India is slowly unfolding. Delayed action is not an option.