No single magic silver bullet solution for smog and pollution

The value of Delhi having the world’s largest fleet of CNG public transport buses has been reduced to a big fat 0 with the city enveloped in smog in the last week of October and November 2012.

CNG in public transport did resolve the problem of air pollution for some time. However, the honeymoon could not have lasted too long.

People have stuck to purchasing personal vehicles and have not transitioned to using public transport.

Approximately 5,185 DTC buses ply on Delhi roads daily from a total of 6,088. The Metro has over 900 coaches plying from early morning to late night. There are also private bus operators that transport people. However, this hasn’t reduced the number of cars on the road. As per Delhi government statistics, in 2010-11 there were  69 lakh registered vehicles in the capital; over 1,000 personal vehicles, on an average, are added to its roads daily.

This is not the case of Delhi alone. According to Bangalore police vehicular population is about 1.5 million, with an annual growth rate of 7-10 per cent. Two wheelers constitute approximately 70 per cent of the traffic, cars 15 per cent and autos 4 per cent.

They  say that all the roads are operating above their carrying capacity. The Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation runs a fleet of over 6,000 buses to cater to a wide range of commuters. But that has not stopped air pollution increasing 34 per cent on an average  between 2002 and 2010 according to a recent report in the American Journal of Climate Change.

But the number of cars are but one part of the reasons for air pollution. There are interlinking issues to vehicles on the road which are related to different  sections of society. The first and foremost is the kind of fuel used – is it petrol, diesel or CNG, next comes the fuel efficiency of the car in other words how much fuel does it burn and how well does it burn it, these issues are issues related to the car manufacturer. The next is the issue of driving the car at optimal levels and maintenance of the car which is the role of the car’s owner or driver.

Driving too fast or too slow, low pressure in the tyres, insufficient engine oil, changing gears too often lead to extra fuel use and incomplete burning of fuel. The state also has a role to play -  bad roads, frequent stop signals or signals that are not synchronised with the next signal lead to idling and driving the vehicles at less than optimal levels, the consequences are the same - extra fuel use and incomplete burning of fuel. According to Bangalore Police the average speed during peak hours has dropped to 15 Km/hr.

Massive concern

Smog is not only an environmental problem; it is also a massive concern about health and safety. Smog leads to accidents,  delays in commute and also affects our lungs. There have been instances in China when residents have been asked not to step outdoors because of the heavy smog which affects breathing and the lungs.

We cannot forget that there are two large thermal power plants in Delhi  - the Rajghat Power Station and the Badarpur Thermal Power Station both use coal. The former was built in 1989-90 and the latter in 1974, both of which are quite old to say the least.
Their age could lead to a decrease in their efficiency leading to more soot being generated. Also the coal they use is from India, Indian coal has a high content of fly ash and low calorific value.  Thus these power stations also cause air pollution and the creation of smog.

Inadequate and erratic power supply also increases air pollution because it leads to use of generators. The answer to this problem lies in a multi-dimensional approach. The government needs to promote the use of public transport which has been done successfully in cities like Curitiba and Bogota.

There also needs to be disincentives to go along with this. Singapore has made car ownership nearly impossible with taxes that match the price of cars thus everyone takes the public transport. Chinese cities have made the cost of registering a car exorbitant while also improving public transportation. Cities like London have raised the cost of parking so high that people enter the city on public transportation.

There are other approaches that cities have undertaken. These include banning vehicles with odd numbers on the license plates on particular  days and even numbers on others. This  reduces the congestion on roads which improves driving and reduces air pollution.
Infrastructure needs to be such that it promotes driving that is socially and environmentally responsible. This means that traffic lights need to be coordinated to ensure no stoppages, the construction of roads also have to be as per this philosophy. This has to be in addition to fines for delinquent drivers and proper training for novice drivers.

In the same way car manufacturers have to be made socially and environmentally conscious. They can no longer hide behind the argument that ‘they give what the consumers want.’ Vehicles, personal or commercial, not only have to be more fuel efficient be it through lower horse power engines or by making them lighter or by a combination of both. Manufacturers can no longer shirk their responsibility.

There is no single magic silver bullet to solving the issue of smog and air pollution. This is because the causes of air pollution are varied that are both personal and the institutional. The role of the individual, society and institutions, both business and government, is key if the problem of air pollution and smog have to be solved.

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