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Why 'Car Control' Is Essential To Fight Pollution In Delhi

One way is to restrict the number of vehicles people can buy.

10/01/2017 1:31 AM IST | Updated 15/01/2017 9:50 AM IST
B Mathur / Reuters

Following the catastrophic pollution levels that hit the national capital in the days after Diwali, both the Supreme Court as well as the Delhi government came up with prescriptions and game plans to deal with the crisis. On 24 November, the apex court ordered a ban on the sale (not the use) of firecrackers in Delhi and NCR. The verdict, though, sounded tentative—the Court took more than a year to act on a petition by two toddlers demanding a ban on crackers before the Dussehra and Diwali season in 2015, in contrast to its proactive support for the odd-even policy despite its tenability being doubted.

Resolving Delhi's pollution conundrum has to begin with a candid admission of the automotive tinderbox that the national capital has wrapped itself into.

The Delhi government, for its part, also now seems to acknowledge the relative ineffectiveness of the odd-even car rationing policy, though keeping this option open if pollution threatens to choke the city again. Also announced were a slew of new measures such as deploying vacuum cleaners and sprinkling water to remove dust, installing massive air purifiers and mist sprayers at key points, operating chimney smoke-tappers to control emissions crematoriums and introducing controlled burning at garbage dumps. Like the ban on crackers coming after Diwali, these measures were also viewed sceptically as being either impractical or seasonal. Meanwhile, the union government was asked to formulate a "graded-response" system that could trigger automatic measures including odd-even, closure of schools, hike in parking fee, halting construction, and so on, based on dip in air quality.

Such interim and knee-jerk measures invariably underscore the lack of political will to pursue impactful measures or lasting solutions to the lingering crisis. Nothing reflects this more than the failure of three state governments, and the Union government, to initiate pre-emptive steps against crop burning despite repeated warnings. Further proof of the absence of political resolve is in the reluctance to implement even basic measures recommended by the National Green Tribunal (NGT), including the ban on diesel and petrol vehicles of a particular vintage. Not a single public facility for dumping or recycling discarded vehicles—the first step to implementing this measure—has come up in Delhi. Promises of augmenting public transport and last-mile connectivity have fallen flat as no tangible efforts have been made to increase the bus fleet, which operates on brink capacity as much as the Delhi Metro.

While a whole set of seasonal and occupational factors require tailor-made solutions, they have only a supplementary role in the larger anti-pollution drive. Instead, resolving Delhi's pollution conundrum has to begin with a candid admission of the automotive tinderbox that the national capital has wrapped itself into. Decision-makers seem reluctant to accept that the city's burgeoning vehicular population demands an immediate and systematic pruning in order to address the dual challenge of pollution and the near-anarchic traffic conditions that have besieged the national capital.

Delhi's vehicular population has outrun its road capacity and the continuing influx of new vehicles is a certain recipe for aggravating the pollution nightmare.

Clearly, Delhi's vehicular population has outrun its road capacity and the continuing influx of new vehicles is a certain recipe for aggravating the pollution nightmare. That is apart from the unaccounted social cost on the nation from the cumulative loss in human-hours and fuel. Any comprehensive strategy to tackle pollution, hence, has to start by addressing this disorder through a decisive policy action.

REVAMPING THE AUTO-INDUSTRIAL POLICY

Right after Diwali, when the NCR was still shrouded in thick layer of smog, various reports quoted the surging sales that auto companies achieved during that festival season. This is the huge paradox that defines India's anti-pollution drive—the country celebrates its high-growth auto-industry, but has pondered little on the vehicular proliferation taking over its cramped urban spaces. The automobile sector is a huge employment generator but also has a responsible stake in the anti-pollution drive, which has to go beyond upgrading fuel quality norms. A national strategy against pollution entails a recalibrating of the auto-industrial policy by devising initiatives to keep the manufacturing lines active even while ensuring that the plethora of vehicular choices do not turn our cities into automobile jungles.

(a) Defined lifetime and recycling policy

It fundamentally entails the enforcement of a usage norm that restricts operational lifetime of all categories of vehicles to a particular period beyond which the vehicle should mandatorily be de-registered and sent to the junkyard. At the core of this policy is also the mass construction—involving the automobile industry as well as certified operators—of junkyards or recycling plants across the country, concentrated in metros and urban centres. This policy could be a win-win situation for the auto-industry as well as for urban spaces, with a time-bound jettisoning of older vehicles keeping the manufacturing inventories active even as older and polluting vehicles are taken off the roads on a regular and systematic basis.

The pivot of a new anti-pollution strategy should be a periodic vehicle assessment system that makes it mandatory for vehicles to be certified for environmental roadworthiness...

The industry could emerge as the pivot of this campaign by shifting to a quota-based manufacturing system that effectively balances market demands with a sustained effort to lessen the pollution imprint by withdrawing older vehicles from the roads. The success of this policy, however, depends on effective implementation of these guidelines along with a whole lot of incentives for customers (to discard older vehicles) and the industry (reduced taxes to encourage balanced production).

(b) Vehicle health assessment

The shift towards a cleaner automotive environment is not just about upgrading engine- and fuel-quality norms but also about ensuring roadworthiness of vehicles within acceptable emissions standards. While roadworthiness could imply different factors depending on the age and make of vehicles, this concept needs to be calibrated towards the "pollution quotient" by determining a vehicle's 'fitness' to stick to permissible standards of emission. The existing fitness and pollution certification process lacks credibility and oversight, with little scope for attrition, while also allowing reuse of older vehicles after structural overhauls. The pivot of a new anti-pollution strategy should, hence, be a periodic vehicle assessment system that makes it mandatory for vehicles to be certified, during their lifetime, for environmental roadworthiness in order to be qualified for usage.

Many European countries have ensured "safer and cleaner" roads through this method, prominent examples being the MOT system in United Kingdom and Contrôle Technique in France. While the MOT prescribes first assessment in the third year of purchase and annual tests thereafter, the French system demands tests every two years to ensure that vehicles adhere to the legal environmental standards during their lifetime. This policy has particular relevance to the Indian cities where polluting vehicles need to be routinely taken off the roads, even during their lifetime, especially through constant revision of emission norms depending on changing conditions.

The government should explore the feasibility of a rationing system by which families that already own a car should not be permitted to purchase a new four-wheeler.

In fact, the Delhi government had suggested the prospect of regular vehicular assessment, though it did not take any meaningful action on this front as in the case of recycling plants. The significant challenge, though, is the general tendency to circumvent such measures through unscrupulous alternatives.

On the other hand, this policy could have a latent spin-off on the used vehicle market. A system that enables regular assurance of roadworthiness of vehicles within their lifetime will lent greater credibility and vibrancy to this sector, which currently is replete with unscrupulous practices and lack of trust. Further, the shift towards a policy of defined usage lifetimes and periodic health assessment will rapidly propel an auxiliary industry that could provide services of quality assessment and recycling.

RATIONING PURCHASE, NOT USAGE

The limited impact of the odd-even policy is proof that rationing of usage, that too for a limited period, may not make any significant difference to the pollution landscape. The higher purchasing power of the city's residents and failure to improve public transport infrastructure could innately render this initiative ineffective.

With dual issues of population and vehicular congestion turning into an insurmountable challenge, Delhi is now left with no option but to restrict the influx of new vehicles into the city. In other words, the government should explore the feasibility of a rationing system by which families that already own a car should not be permitted to purchase a new four-wheeler. To be implemented along with a ban on registration of vehicles from outside the state, this could be run as a temporary measure until the Metro network connects most parts of the city and other modes of public transport are substantially improved, along with timely jettisoning of older vehicles.

Though this suggestion might, at first glance, seem difficult to implement, the fact that the city's vehicular traffic has outgrown Delhi's public infrastructure necessitates resorting to such extremes so as to mitigate further chaos. Other cities could be forewarned from this condition in the national capital and be encouraged to explore effective pre-emptive actions to restrict the growth of vehicular population along with timely investment in public transport.

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