Centre's lopsided priority in measures to curb pollution

Moves made by the judiciary and the Central government in the last three months have shown a growing awareness of the need for resolute action on air pollution, and in particular, vehicular pollution. Acknowledging that “the pollution and traffic situation in cities is a matter of great concern”, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has proposed a handful of measures in the 2016-17 Union Budget, including levying a progressive infrastructure cess of 1% on small petrol, LPG and CNG vehicles; 2.5% on diesel cars with engine capacity below 1500cc; and 4% on higher engine capacity vehicles and SUVs.

There will be an additional 1% tax on SUVs and luxury cars exceeding Rs 10 lakh. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) and the Supreme Court are also hearing cases that aim to lay out a roadmap for diesel with calls being made to ban diesel cars in major urban centres such as Delhi, Kerala and possibly extending it to a dozen other cities.

More recently, and in a widely applauded move, Union Minister for Power Piyush Goyal made a bold claim on March 25, 2016, that India would be running an all-electric vehicular fleet by 2030. These measures and statements, however, don’t go anywhere in addressing what is a key contributor to the air pollution load and concomitant disease burden.

Exposure to air pollution (ambient or household) contributed to about 1.5 million premature deaths in India in 2012, as per the Global Burden of Disease, a collaboration of researchers. The vast majority of these were attributable to cardiovascular or respiratory outcomes, with children, the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions proving most vulnerable to exposure.

Indian cities are among the most polluted in the world, with several featuring on the WHO’s list of cities with the highest air pollution levels in the world. Vehicular transport is a significant contributor to air pollution in urban areas. Various source apportionment studies conducted in India have shown that vehicular transport contributes anywhere from 16-45% of total PM2.5 in our major urban centres, and that it is a constant across seasons. Also important to note is that diesel exhaust is considered a class I carcinogen, along with the likes of coal and benzene, by the International Agency for Research in Cancer.

In considering vehicular contribution to air pollution, however, it is important to not only assess the volume of emissions, but also their intake fraction. Intake fraction refers to the amount of pollutants inhaled by the population divided by the amount released. In other words, it gives an estimate of the impact on health from each kilogram of pollutant released, and yields a better understanding of the relative health risk of different sources of pollution.

It also provides a basis for which sectors should be prioritised for emission reductions, as has been elucidated in the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare’s Steering Committee Report, released in January 2016. Intake fraction often differs from ambient PM pollution levels, and rises when individuals have increased exposure to emissions, such as when they are sitting in traffic. This has significant implications for commuters in megacities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru where three-hour traffic jams are a common occurrence.

Commuters in Bengaluru – which was ranked as the sixth worst city for commuting in IBM’s 2011 Commuter Pain Index – spend on average at least two hours per day commuting. That equates to one person spending over 500 hours per year on the road, inhaling toxic vehicular emissions.

Poor budgetary allocations

The remedial measures proposed by the government, however, have several drawbacks. While the governments have set aside thousands of crores of rupees for Metro projects, they have designated no such funds for improving public bus infrastructure. But they instead open up the market to private bus operators to operate various routes.

Minister Goyal’s ambitions of an all-electric vehicular fleet are also thwarted by completely unsatisfactory budgetary allocations. Last year’s Budget earmarked Rs 795 crore for support to hybrid and electric vehicles, with this amount to be expended in the first phase till 2016-17. A total of Rs 75 crore was the planned expenditure for 2015-16, which at an average of Rs 1 lakh per vehicle works out to a total incentive outlay for 7,500 vehicles nationally, at a time when Delhi alone registers over 1,400 new cars every day.

FAME India (Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric vehicles) is part of the larger National Electric Mobility Mission Plan (NEMMP), which aims to have six million electric and hybrid vehicles on the road by 2020. Neither NEMMP nor Goyal’s plans for an all-electric vehicular fleet by 2030 are achievable or realistic targets at current levels of investment.

The government needs to ensure that the implementation of Bharat VI fuel and emissions standards, fast-tracked with the action of the Supreme Court, is implemented by 2020 as now planned, not acquiescing to the demands of the automobile lobby.

The government must also develop a clear roadmap for expanding the fleet of hybrid and electric vehicles through bold new incentives. Instead of relying on the private sector for public transportation like polluting diesel buses, the government must invest in improved public transport infrastructure, to encourage more commuters to switch to public transportation.

Finally, the government stands to rake in Rs 25,000 crore from the new `clean environment cess’. There must be a robust plan in place to use these funds to help India transition to cleaner energy, including cleaner modes of transport.

A broader framework is also required to synergise disparate but thematically linked schemes such as the Swacchh Bharat Mission and the Smart Cities Mission with our roadmap for clean energy and transport, if we are to stem the growing burden of air pollution on our nation’s health.
(The writers are with the Centre of Environmental Health, Public Health Foundation of India)

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