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We can leapfrog to the future without pollution and congestion: Anumita Roychowdhury

Parvinder Singh
Source: Toxics Link, Date: , 2007

CSE recently came out with a study claiming that Delhi's pollution levels have turned critical this winter, could you shed light on this?

picture of Anumita RoychawhoryEven without looking at the air pollution figures we know from the darkened skyline that Delhi’s air quality gains will be lost this winter. Dry air has begun to get heavy with dust, smoke and particles. Calm and cool weather is blocking the dispersal of smoke and pollutants. Low-hanging shroud impairs visibility, chokes lungs.

Our analysis of the official air pollution data shows that the particulate pollution, which is considered the most serious vis-a-vis health, had stabilised after dropping by more than 24 per cent from the 1996 levels, is threatening to rise again. Even in winters when build up of pollution is highest compared to any other part of the year -- there had been a consistent decline since 1999. This too is scaling up. Winter is a seasonal statement of the growing pollution crisis, a cyclical reminder of our inability to put into action the real solutions.

Should we be alarmed? Why only this winter? Does this mean the historic conversion to CNG has failed suddenly?

We are very concerned. The real problem of an exponential increase in the number of vehicles, particularly the diesel variants, not only remains, but continues to grow. Between 1996 and 2006, personal vehicle registrations have risen by a staggering 105 per cent. Car registrations saw an aggressive climb of 157 per cent. Diesel car have increased by a shocking 425 percent in this period. This can only have devastating impact for a city already desperate for solutions to control smoke, particulates and NOx.

Delhi phased out 12,000 diesel buses to escape from the lethal effect of toxic diesel particles. However diesel, and its polluting fumes, is making a comeback through personal transport, threatening to nullify the air quality gains made in the past years. According to a very conservative estimate, the particulate emissions from the diesel cars in Delhi equals that from nearly 30,000 diesel buses. The benefits of the CNG switch and other measures including improvement in vehicle technology and fuel quality will be lost if the vehicle numbers are not controlled.

You have been at the fore-front of the decade-and-half clean air campaign that has made air-pollution a important issue in public perception. Can share with our readers how has the nature of pollutants changed over the recent years?

We are noticing significant shifts in air quality trends in Delhi. Among the key pollutants that are routinely monitored by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), particulates have continued to remain a grave cause for worry given their very high levels despite stabilistaion. But sulphur dioxide levels have dropped much below the permissible levels largely due to coal substitution by the industries and lowering of sulphur levels in the transport fuels.

But lower SO2 levels should be interpreted with caution as much of this primary pollutant may also convert into sulphate particles through atmospheric transformation that are more deadly. Dramatic reduction in carbon monoxide despite the growing number of petrol cars in the city is a success story. But the major cause of worry today is the rising NOx levels, which is not only very harmful as a primary pollutant, but also aids in formation of yet another very harmful pollutant -- ozone. This trend here is consistent with global experience. All pollution control measures that have targeted to reduce CO, hydrocarbons and particulates have increased NOx as a deadly trade off. This is a challenge for the future. Indian cities will have to design control strategies that will help to resolve the trade offs.

Can you briefly share with us the shortcoming of the current emission standards, particularly with regards to diesel vehicles?

Diesel engine presents a very special engineering challenge in reducing both particulate matter and NOx emissions, simultaneously and significantly. The available engineering solutions to reduce particulates increases NOx. Due to these limitations of diesel engine, emissions regulations worldwide traditionally have allowed diesel vehicles to emit more NOx and particulate matter in comparison to petrol vehicles. Under the Euro-III emissions standards currently in force in Delhi, diesel cars are legally allowed to emit three times more NOx than petrol cars. This means adding one diesel car to the fleet on the road is equal to adding three petrol cars. At a global level the new emissions regulations in the US and California have addressed this problem by setting one of the most stringent fuel neutral standards for all vehicles, irrespective of the fuels they run on. This has severely reduced diesel cars in the US market. Only significant technology development would allow diesel cars to live up to the US norms.

Is it high time to nail the issue of private transport vehicles?

The biggest challenge that confronts Delhi and other Indian cities -- is how to overcome the intractable problem of automobile dependence. Vehicle numbers continue to grow, leading to congestion, pollution and unsafe roads. This is symptomatic of the mobility crisis that has resulted from wrong policies that have made the cost of owning and driving vehicles abysmally low and at the same time ignored to build public transport strategies.

In a statement of concern submitted to the Supreme Court a couple of years ago, we stated that the “breathing space” that Delhi gained, quite literally, because of the CNG programme can be lost if the future roadmap for pollution control in the city is not set immediately. There is need for consistent, sustained, and aggressive strategy to lower emissions from the fast burgeoning vehicle fleet in the city. The serious challenges that Delhi faces today include rapidly growing numbers of private vehicles, and increased pollution from slow and congested traffic. Inadequate public transport is leading to an increased dependence on private transport and distorted tax policy that taxes public transport at higher rates makes ownership and usage of private cars and two-wheelers attractive.

Urban planners must recognise that there are cities around the world which have demonstrated that with policies that restrain travel demand and use of personal vehicles, it is possible to reverse automobile dependence. Congestion pricing, parking levers, and land-use changes, are among the wide range of strategies available that can reduce car use.

An important way to slow down the growth in car numbers is to make a car pay for the full costs of the ecological and social damages. But the existing policies in Delhi and other Indian cities actually allow a hidden subsidy to cars as the costs of using up urban space for parking and roads, health damage, pollution, other social impacts are not recovered through taxes and road pricing. Reversal of such policies has already begun in Europe and other regions of the world. Asia’s own legend, Singapore, has shown how beginning early with traffic restraint measures, even before the mass transit systems are in place, can effectively cap the car boom. These measures have shown results. Traffic volumes have reduced. India cannot afford to delay these decisions any more.

In the end of the last year, mid-December 2006, an important inter-governmental meet brought together largest ever Asian gathering on the issue at Yogakarta in Indonesia. What are the implications of this gathering? Was it just a talk-shop or more than that?

This was one of the largest gathering on clean air issues in Asia and presents an opportunity to mobilise information and knowledge, track progress in Asian cities and expose a large number of stakeholders to the state of the science, debate, common problems and challenges pertaining to the issue. Whether such efforts -- not only this event or many other such forums -- represent opportunities or degenerate to talk shops will largely depend on the ability of the cities to translate science and information into real action and develop their own systems to benchmark progress. These forums should bring out good science on pollution control and management, draw attention to public health impacts, lay stress on the importance of preventive action and leapfrog strategy to go beyond the problem.

Do you see the issue of trans-boundary air pollution becoming a concern for the region's policymakers in the coming years?

Discussions have already begun on these issues in the Asian region and is likely to draw more political attention in the near future as individual countries begin to come under intense pressure to clean up their air.

Finally, the Asian economic boom has not really allowed consistent measures to address the issue of air pollution as the countries are too busy capitalising on the gains. Do you feel the exponential rise in air-pollution and its related health implications dampen the investment environment here?

Unfortunately, we do not organise studies in India to assess the impact of air pollution on our economy. It is a vital instrument of governance in other countries. Even in Asia, Hong Kong for instance, despite having cleaner air than the major Indian cities has begun to experience negative impact of pollution on business. A growing number of foreign executives -- and even some companies -- are leaving the city, citing the air pollution as the reason. Some companies worry pollution could cost the city its competitive edge. A recent survey of American business leaders in the region, found that 79 per cent of executives felt environmental issues are making Hong Kong less attractive to foreign companies. In India, such organised efforts have not been made to asses these dimensions of the problem. But we must be pre-warned about such sporadic instances. For rxample the way international sport events have got affected by high pollution levels. You may recall how the cricket test match in Kanpur was called-off because of smog in 2004.

Would like to share anything on the issue with our readers?

We believe it is possible to bring about change -- we can leapfrog to the future without pollution and congestion, if we can push for new technology and mobility paradigm. The seriousness of the problem requires quantum leap. It is more cost effective to leapfrog than to space out action incrementally over an inordinately long time frame. Solutions exist. We need to enable them. We have learnt from our experience and I am convinced that change is possible if there is strong public demand for clean air in our cities.