Health and air pollution
By some estimates, nearly 21,000 diesel-run taxis will go off the roads from Sunday, a day after the apex court refused to extend the April 30 deadline fixed for their conversion into less-polluting CNG mode. Of the 60,000 taxis registered in the national capital, 2,000 of them switched to the greener fuel over the past two months, according to the Press Trust of India. While the court’s order does not apply to taxis with all-India permits, most of the registered taxis in Delhi ply locally. The AAP-led government has asked the transport department to take action against any local diesel taxis seen on the roads from Sunday onwards. Taxis with all-India permits have to cover a distance of 200 kilometres, he said, and this will be verified through spot-checks. It could be the end of the road for diesel taxis including those run by aggregators like Ola and Uber in Delhi and National Capital Region (NCR) if they do not comply with the apex court’s orders. Also, the Supreme Court on Saturday adjourned its special day-long hearing on pollution in the NCR to May 9, which means the ban in the region on the registration of diesel cars above 2000 CC will continue. Last year, in a desperate bid to cut pollution levels in the national capital, the apex court had banned registration of luxury diesel cars. The decision to ban diesel vehicles above 2,000cc engine capacity will mainly affect luxury carmakers. In its order last year, the apex court also ordered that those trucks not bound for Delhi will not be allowed to enter the national capital through National Highways 1 and 8. However, those carrying goods for Delhi will have to pay a steep environment compensation charge (ECC). The amount payable by big trucks will be Rs 2,6000 and Rs 1,400 for light commercial vehicles, which is almost double the amount the court had set in October.
According to a study by IIT-Kanpur study, at least, a quarter of all cars on Delhi roads run on diesel. Their survey in different parts of Delhi has shown that diesel cars are responsible for 60 to 70 percent of PM2.5 emissions from the vehicles. Another study by the Centre for Science and Environment has suggested that cars and two-wheelers contribute close to half of the particulate road from the transport sector in Delhi. Excluding trucks, their contribution rises to 76 percent of the transport sector particulate load, according to CSE. Suffice to say, most of these vehicles do not adhere to the vehicular emission standards. In fact, a majority of these vehicles run on a mixture of kerosene and diesel to save money. Studies have suggested that the amount of respirable suspended particulate matter (RSPM) in Delhi’s air rises late at night with the corresponding flow of diesel-run trucks. The effects of RSPM, quite naturally, carry on into the early morning. Over 23 percent of the cars on Delhi roads run on diesel which produces much more carcinogenic nitrogen oxide than petrol cars. Particulate matter levels have also soared to often ten times the prescribed limits. The court order seems to have understood that putting a premium on using roads is the only way to solve the problem of vehicular pollution. However, one is not sure whether Delhi has the institutional capacity to implement its proposal. The lack of adequate public transport to handle extra demand and an understaffed traffic police force to check violations are just some of the implementation issues that could arise. The AAP government has made it clear that it is the responsibility of the Delhi Police to implement the proposal. The national capital indeed suffers from a desperate shortage of police and traffic personnel.
But it’s a question of health. Fortunately, for the very first time earlier this year, the Centre asked for health to be the central focus of air pollution control in the country. The recognition of air pollution as a serious health issue is a significant step forward keeping in mind that air pollution control is currently managed and monitored by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change under the Air Act, 1986, which does not even have health risk mitigation as its stated objective. In a recent column, Anumita Roychowdhury, the Executive Director of the Centre for Science and Environment, hailed the Centre’s decision. “Cities are mindlessly monitoring air quality and assessing air pollution sources without linking the exercise with health risk mitigation. A report from the steering committee on air pollution and health-related issues put out a few months ago, has brought some sanity in the insane obsession with ambient pollution concentration and the constant fight for determining relative share of pollution sources to the overall ambient pollution concentration. It says very clearly, pollution exposure management is more important from a health standpoint than only management of pollution concentration in the ambient air,” she said. When an engine burns diesel, the exhaust it releases contains a mixture of gaseous materials and particulates, which cause cancer and various other diseases. In fact, doctors have told patients with respiratory ailments to leave the city due its poor air quality. The debate surrounding lung cancer in India, however, has only been associated with smoking. Inhalation of diesel fumes from vehicles and generator sets, though, play a significant part in giving rise to cases of lung cancer and other such health ailments, according to experts in the field. With health included in the conversation on air pollution, there is a lot that governments can achieve to tackle this problem.