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The ‘don’t touch my car’ syndrome

The ‘don’t touch my car’ syndrome
I always find it very amusing when tonnes of evidence show up the moment there is any talk of reducing pollution from personal vehicles. Complex modeling crunch rarified numbers to claim that vehicles – especially personal cars and two-wheelers –are a very small part of the problem and should be left alone. Take any policy step – short term or long term on the table – junking of old cars, odd and even number formula, restricting diesel cars and SUVs, increasing parking charges on cars or even giving dedicated space to buses on roads – the general refrain is, why touch cars. Deal with other pollution sources in the city and outside. Why are you loading action “only” on the poor cars? “Don’t-touch-my-car syndrome” is a colouring interpretation of air pollution science and policy mindset, and weakening action on all pollution sources. While the city has to do a lot more to control pollution from all sources, there cannot be any let up for personal vehicles. This is fogging the issue more than the smog outside. The new expert-speak in town is fogging the issue more than the smog outside.

For a moment, I actually got worried. Has this city and all of us fighting air pollution misunderstood the source apportionment and pollution inventory studies and ignored all pollution sources but the cars? Have we really loaded action on cars and not on other pollution sources? To put the record straight, I immediately checked out action initiated on all pollution sources in Delhi and wow… I found that while all sources have some action to report – weak or strong –cars have nearly none other than the usual slow improvement in emissions standards that the national government does. The city has virtually done nothing to tame pollution from cars and two-wheelers that spew half of particulate pollution and a significant chunk of nitrogen oxides and toxins from all vehicles in the city. This has only made me aware of the danger of misleading interpretation of air pollution science which instead of “clearing the air” mystifies more. This stokes the fight over the size of the pollution pie for each source that these studies generate and depending on which slice you are batting for, you pitch your dissent. So the “expert-speak” does not inform the community about the status of action on each pollution source, what more needs to be done but only argues why action should be lessened on cars and why action on cars will not help. What is this glib talk all about when it is a no brainer that clean air target will need action on all sources.

The media gets awash with quotes from the expert-speak, citing studies from IIT Delhi and University of Birmingham only to say cars are a small part of the problem. This happens with repeated regularity whenever there is any talk of action on cars– parking restraints on cars, restraints on diesel cars, odd and even formula. There is almost a pattern to this discussion in the city today. But this passion and the number game on pollution dies quickly, the moment the heat on cars is taken off. Steam around other pollution sources also evaporates.

So why don’t we first take a look at the action on each pollution source in Delhi? But I am doing this listing with a clear rider – and let me underscore that –that the city needs to do significantly a lot more in all sectors to pull down the horrendous peak of pollution to the level that World Health Organization (WHO) prescribes as safe. This should not give the impression that Delhi has done enough on other sources – no, not at all. But this listing will only make it clear how cars and two-wheelers are being let off the hook so easily. While doing this, I will keep in view the most comprehensive source apportionment study that IIT Kanpur did for Delhi government. This not only gives a clear idea of the whole range of pollution sources but also considers secondary particulates that are formed in the air from gases that come from vehicles and power plants.

What is being done to control dust from construction and roads?
Road dust, according to the IIT study, is a key polluter –36 percent of PM2.5 in Delhi. The Supreme Court has, therefore, on December 16, had given a direction to Delhi government to come up with a detailed mechanism for road dust control. This should be in place before the next hearing in January. They will have to work with different strategies – street paving and design, vegetative barriers, sprinklers, and vacuum cleaning where ever possible as this will be expensive. Reducing traffic is also important.

Dust from construction, according to IIT study, is two percent of PM2.5 and needs to be controlled. Guidelines exist for large constructions – but need improvement and enforcement. Real estate industry and infrastructure providers need to be made liable. The NGT pressure for high penalty has led to the issue of notices. There is pressure on Delhi government to spruce up enforcement. Moreover, Delhi has a recycling plant for construction and demolition waste. It, however, requires good policy to ensure market picks up the recycled material.

What about vehicles – second largest emitters of PM2.5 after road dust?
It is ironical that the city has picked up action on commercial and public transport vehicles in the city –trucks, buses, autos and taxis --but nearly none on personal vehicles.

Clamp down on trucks – Trucks are the biggest polluters among all vehicle segments. The Supreme Court had asked trucks without business in Delhi not to enter Delhi way back in 2001. In its latest ruling on trucks, on December 16, 2015, the court has doubled the environment compensatory charge on all truck entering Delhi, based on polluter pay principle; stopped entry of all pre-Euro III trucks into Delhi and asked for diversion of all non-destined trucks through alternative routes being earmarked by the governments in the NCR. The next step is the immediate introduction of Bharat Stage IV emissions standards nationwide so that trucks can improve emissions by 80 percent and also leapfrog to Euro VI standards in 2020 to clean up all vehicles. The measures on trucks have already led to 30 percent drop in truck numbers with a commensurate reduction in emissions.

Heat on buses and para-transit: About 15 years ago, all buses, autos and taxis were mandated to move out of diesel and to CNG. Their age was fixed at 15 years. Now all taxis in the entire NCR have been directed by the Supreme Court to move to CNG by March 2016. There is an order to increase the number of buses to 10,000. Inadequate manufacturing capacity and lack of space for bus parking and terminal are holding up this strategy. The city is committing more land for car parks than bus parking. It is also interesting to see how the announcement of the odd and even formula has led the government to scrutinize metro, bus, auto, and taxi network and services. Never before has the city gathered this kind of data or had such conversation to improve public transport services.

What about cars and two-wheelers? Virtually no action at the city level.
When some expert bytes are asking why the only car, I could barely find any specific action to control pollution from personal vehicles – cars and two-wheelers. Our estimates show that if we include trucks from outside, then cars and two-wheelers are close to half of particulate load from the transport sector in Delhi. If we exclude outside trucks, their share will increase to 76 percent of the transport sector particulate load. But there are no restraints on personal vehicle usage. On the contrary, there is a range of hidden subsidies for promoting car usage. Personal vehicles get free parking in most places – especially in all residential areas or pay a pittance in commercial areas (only New Delhi Municipal Council and a couple of other Municipal Corporations have raised the rates marginally); parking is even free in big shopping malls. Cars pay a very small one-time road tax compared to buses that pay a much higher amount every year. There is no annual registration fee for personal vehicles. It is, therefore, cheaper to use personal vehicles than public transport. There is no polluter pay tax like that on trucks for these vehicles. But they occupy more road space, carry much less number of people and pollute more per capita.

Moreover, cars are taking full advantage of low-tax diesel fuel. According to the IIT study and a survey, at least, a quarter of all cars on Delhi roads are already dieselised. Their survey in different parts of Delhi has shown that diesel cars are responsible for 60 to 70 percent of PM2.5 from the vehicles. While buses, autos and taxis are not allowed on diesel, cars are dieselising rapidly. Current emissions standards allow diesel cars to emit more particulate matter and nitrogen oxides (NOx) as compared to petrol cars. Adding one diesel car to fleet is equal to adding three to seven petrol cars. WHO has put diesel emissions in class I category of carcinogen for the strong link with lung cancer – same as tobacco. India does not have clean diesel and fuel. Only at Euro VI level, diesel emissions close the gap with petrol emissions. In fact, while delivering the order on December 16, 2015, the Chief Justice Bench had observed that if environment tax is imposed on all diesel cars, it will make car buyers conscious that they are buying polluting vehicles.

If everyone is comparing Beijing’s action with Delhi then they should know that Beijing has already banned diesel cars. Paris is also phasing  them out. Brazil does not allow diesel cars and more are to follow including eight cities in the United Kingdom. Germany is known for a strong anti-diesel campaign to get diesel cleaned up. But there is no action on diesel cars in India. It is only now that the Supreme Court has said luxury car segment cannot use low-tax diesel in Delhi NCR.

Facts speak for themselves. Other sources of pollution are under pressure – though poorly enforced in some cases and should be improved and be made more stringent urgently. But the city has virtually done nothing to control pollution from personal vehicles. What are the detractors cribbing about?

(The views expressed are strictly personal)
Anumita Roychowdhury

Anumita Roychowdhury

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