Devil thrives on diesel
Quick measures must be initiated to ban diesel vehicles from inner cities while also necessitating conversion to gas-power transport.
The New Year hasn't rung on anything new and air pollution doesn't look to be relaxing its stranglehold on cities, whether big or small. For megacities, there seems to be no mercy at all—they refuse to change their ways in any substantial manner, except by coming out with ever more talks and paper plans to combat pollution which is the hydra-headed invisible monster. The spell of cold weather may have abated somewhat but the national capital's air quality index is likely to remain within the 'poor to very poor' category through the second fortnight of this January.
Let us clear the clutter and come up with a refreshed and clear vision. There is the Delhi Pollution Control Committee which has accused the local municipal corporations of allowing several industries to operate within residential areas of the capital without assigning the mandatory clearances. "All government agencies such as the municipal corporations or local bodies, discoms, Delhi Jal Board etc shall not grant or issue any licence or permission, or electricity connection or water supply connection or sewer connection to the industries or units without having consent (permission) to establish from DPCC." Sounds great; but does the DPCC have the power or authority to ensure that its order is completely implemented in letter and in spirit?
Then there is the grossly understaffed National Green Tribunal issuing all and sundry orders which are rarely implemented on the ground. On top of this, there is the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) which has its own panels on various issues from stubble burning to subsidies provided to farmers to help them to do the job. And, when all ideas and schemes fail to get off the ground, the Supreme Court is forced to issue its own orders to inject a sense of urgency in the implementation of some of the official plans. Clearly, there is a crisis of implementation in the best laid out plans.
Let's identify the worst known pollutants and tackle them one by one on a prioritised list.
Experts have time and again told us that Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), primarily a product of diesel combustion, is one of the biggest health hazards in urban areas, responsible for thousands of deaths every year. The annual concentration of NO2 in the national capital region of Delhi, for instance, has been steadily rising over the last three years since 2015. It rose from 48.3 microgrammes per cubic metre (ug/m3) in 2015, to 49.8 ug/m3 in 2016 and finally to 51.83 ug/m3 in 2017, against a safe annual level of just 40 ug/m3. The rise in NO2 levels comes in spite of a prevailing trend of slightly lower consumption of diesel, according to monitoring authorities. What is true of Delhi/NCR is true for most of the state capitals along with other sizeable cities.
Ideally, Indian cities should go for all electric cars and other hybrid public transport as many European countries are trying to adopt. However, in our current state of affairs, both economic and lack of technical preparedness, we have to look for what is available and feasible for the mid-term future over the next 20 years. In that sense, gas is our best bet for the foreseeable, near future, till hybrid and all-electric conversion can become possible or till solar energy becomes viable and cheaper. Gas is the least polluting fuel for our transport economy and it is available in plenty across the world markets with abundant supplies from Russia to Arabia and elsewhere. As things stand today, we are facing an immediate pollution menace amounting to crisis proportions. There is really, no time to lose.
Drastic maladies need drastic remedies, steps followed by an assured step in quick stages.
Step 1. One of the first actions which our urban administrations need to initiate is to make the availability of diesel fuel difficult. There must be a ban on all diesel dispensing pumps within a radius of 15 miles or about 20 km.
Step 2. Raise diesel prices, even by a few paise, except for tractors, long distance trucks and goods carriers throughout the country. That will send the right message to the public at large.
Step 3. Ban the import of all new diesel cars which are still displaying rampant sales promotion drives on our TV channels even today.
Step 4. Impose diesel pollution charges, a variant of London-style congestion charges, on diesel driven vehicles passing through inner cities within 20km from the city centres. Diesel owners have to contend with extra parking and passage charges in London.
Step 5. Expand bus services by at least four-fold for megacities. Delhi, for instance, needs 20,000 buses, not 5,000, which is, for now, its effective strength. London, with half the population of Delhi, has over 9,000 buses besides an even bigger Metro or Tube network. The Central government here should cough up sufficient money for the purpose and not just leave it to the local city and state authorities. The same should be done by the state governments for their capital cities.
Step 6. Launch a massive drive, with the financial help of the Central and state governments, to make all public and private buses in urban areas diesel free, forcing them to convert to hybrid or CNG vehicles. Private cars should also be encouraged to convert from petrol to CNG, with incentives like half–price gas for the first year after conversion.
Diesel vehicles, generators and allied contraptions fall into the unanimous category of health hazards, especially in cities big and small, which need to be targeted with all the determination and drive we can muster. Sweden, France and many others countries are leading by example to this cause. Sweden's leading car maker Volvo has decided to stop manufacturing diesel vehicles from 2019, turning out only hybrid or electric cars. Volvo has set itself the target of selling one million electric vehicles — either hybrids or those powered solely by battery — by 2025. It will launch five fully electric cars between 2019 and 2021.
Paris decided in 2015 to ban diesel vehicles from entering the city from 2020 and is well on its way to achieving the target with a series of disincentives. Cities like London have been carrying out inner city decongestion measures, with not just heavy parking charges, but by levying substantial fees for simply entering or driving through inner zones from 9 am to 6 pm.
If they can do it, so can our Indian cities. All we need is the determination to implement the measures and not pass the buck from municipal to state and Central bureaucracies. It's time for the city, state and Central authorities to implement measures with fines, penalties and disincentives along with police and court action against the necessary defaulters.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)