Anumita Roychowdhury

It’s a very complex trend that you’re beginning to see in Delhi. So we all know air pollution is bad in Delhi. But you also see certain ups and downs that have happened over a period of time… In Delhi, because of the air pollution, there has been a lot of public action where the judiciary has stepped in and that has now been happening for over twenty years.

The initial period where it all started [1998-2003], saw a lot of important decisions: Delhi shifted all polluting industry out, it has shut down a couple of coal-based power plants, it has implemented one of the largest CNG programmes within all the public transport systems, improved emissions standards. Several things happened in quick succession and that was a period when action was building momentum.

We did see some improvements with air quality immediately after that. So if you look at the trends you can see that from 2002-2007, you do see some tapering off and arresting of the trend, a stabilisation of the trend. Obviously, we did not solve the problem but we kind of stopped it from getting worse. But 2008/9, onwards, you notice again a rising trend, so today we actually are saying that … we could not sustain the gains. Because the momentum of the action could not be sustained. So many things happened in quick succession, but then you did not see enough happening after that and there was that lull period so – other than a few metro lines happening – you really don’t see much. The Commonwealth Games in 2010 … gave it a bit of a push in terms of some emergency action and some infrastructure was added to the city. But that was very short term and not enough and then the 2010-2015 period is also the time when the problem was growing worse. There was a lot of international attention, much more rhetoric around the issue and lots more conversation. That’s the gain actually. When we started our campaign twenty years ago the conversation was much more limited. But now at least you see a lot more conversation around the issue. Even that has helped.

The second generation challenge is about where you are seeing a situation where you have lost the gains of the earlier generation. The problems are growing very rapidly and our ability to deal with the problem is limited. If I give you [the] example of motorisation, for instance. We can shift industry out of the city, we can shut down power plants but you cannot relocate your vehicles. You’re stuck with them and, if your vehicles are at a poor level of technology because your emissions standards are languishing, a rapid motorisation [means] your emissions from vehicles are high. Then there are the sheer numbers growing, so that’s, you’re not prepared with a good public transport strategy to contain that and so forth. At the same time, the responses to pollution are also sporadic, episodic, reactionary. It’s not a comprehensive plan that you are taking into account each and every source of pollution. You’re more in a reactive mode than a very clear planning mode.

[Diwali] is when it becomes visible. That’s when you really see it hitting you. The problem is that the pollution remains here all throughout the year. If you want to avoid a bad winter you need to be prepared all through the year and you need to see that you are containing the problem.

A lot of public campaigns were run and, from 2015 onwards, we’re beginning to see another shift. When the judiciary take a new interest, that started to emerge again. So 2015 onwards, you see another important change happening now and that’s where we are deeply interested, because … we don’t want to lose the momentum again this time.

Now if we get into the action, do we know enough about the sources of the pollution, how much they are contributing? In 2015, IIT Kanpur was asked by the government of Delhi to come up with a source apportionment and [it] shows 12-13 pollution sources. Their relative contribution differs: if you’re looking at particulate matter, then the road dust is the highest contributor at about 36 per cent, then the second highest contributors are the vehicles at 20 per cent. Then the domestic sources, like where you are burning the chulhas, the stoves of the poor people, that’s about 11 per cent. Then comes industrial power plants; I think that’s around 8-10 per cent, and then these other sources like waste burning, construction activity, generator emissions, they all range between 2-3 per cent.

What is happens is our climatic zone in Northern India is such that there’s a lot of dust. There’s a natural dust bowl across the north of India, so what happens is that the dry dust settles on the road and, when the traffic moves on the road, the dust is suspended in the air. So that’s taken as a specific source. So there is a wind-blown dust, which also contributes to particulate pollution and then there is re-suspended dust on the road. It continuously rises and gets disturbed and kicked up.

At the end of the day, although that dust is a natural dust, it is the size of the particle that matters and determines how deadly it is going to be. The smaller they are, the deeper they can go inside your lungs…

When you look at the gases, [it is] nitrogen oxide which is a rising pollutant in this city. You find that industry and power plants are the highest contributors, about 52-53 per cent. The second contributor is vehicles. In both cases, vehicles are the second largest contributors. Then you have these other categories…

Now these numbers also become very political because what happens is everyone gets into the numbers game. So when you’re trying to tighten the screw on the vehicles, they say ‘we are only 20 per cent of the problem, so don’t trouble us… Then the whole communication of science becomes really important. When your overall pollution levels are so high in the city, a contribution of 20 per cent or 3 per cent are all bad. It’s only a piece of the pie chart but then you’re all individually contributing and it adds up… This is all taken care of by the Ministry of Environment, but then the Ministry of Health got involved with this matter and they came up with a report that said: [the reason] you’re talking about air pollution is because of public health. So from a health perspective, it is not enough to say how the general air quality of the city looks. [You have to ask] what is the relative contribution of different sources to the general ambient condition? What is more important from a public health perspective is how close you are as a person to a pollution source. What your exposure is to a particular pollution source. The ranking changes because wherever you live. Suppose someone is burning waste right in front of your house and, even if it’s 2 per cent of the city wide problem, it’s a big problem for you. Similarly with vehicles… when you live within 500 metres of the road, then your personal exposure to the vehicle pollutants are much higher than the power plant pollution. Therefore, the health ministry said: control pollution where it is happening in close proximity to the people, so you need to do more micro-mapping and take local action. So that filter helps a lot to counter that lobby pressure … of that other number game that happened. So this was an important development in India.

You need to take action on all of the sources of pollution but you cannot, you still have to focus on which is the cause of much higher exposure. What you’re inhaling, that’s very critical. The third filter that came in because of the new science that is emerging now. Traditionally, all health studies showed how particulate matter is bad. They never differentiated between particulate matter. They just said the size fraction is bad for you and that’s fine – it still remains valid. But the new science is also saying that, depending on from where your particle is coming from, will determine the toxicity of the particle. So therefore the particle coming from coal combustion or diesel combustion is going to be much more harmful than simple wind-blown dust; again that helps you to prioritise your actions. Where should you put your maximum effort to protect public health?

So the Supreme Court of India then got very active in this in 2015. The whole Delhi NCR has become a focus of the second action. Now in that, two very important developments have happened. One after the very bad smog we had after Diwali last year, you must have heard about it. So immediately after that the Supreme Court directed that you already have an air quality index to classify air quality to communicate to people.

But the court said that is not good enough, you may classify, you may inform but you also need action based on that information. So then the Supreme Court directed the government to come up with what’s now called the Graded Response Action Plan. So it’s graded action according to this classification. So this has been notified earlier this year. This is important and we are excited about the fact that, this winter, we are going to play this out for the first time.

Officially the winter period is taken as from 15 October to 15 March. So during that period, the action that has been identified for the Red (poor) category, that will prevail as a default measure throughout the winter. Whenever levels go to severe and emergency, then the action allocated for those categories will kick in. So that’s how it’s going to look. After this plan was created, the court also said that the graded action response is still an emergency response. You still [need] to take some action to deal with it. You can’t remain on emergency mode forever; you need a comprehensive action plan for each source of pollution with a very clear idea of long-, medium- and short-term actions you will implement. You might have thought of some grand emergency action, like taking 50 per cent of vehicles off the road, but you have not done anything about improving the public transport system. Then you can’t take 50 per cent of private cars off the road. Public transport will not improve overnight; for that you need a sustained plan. So the court has now asked for that and it has been submitted to the court. The hearings are happening now on that.

So these two plans have created a lot of opportunity now and it’s a very good opportunity to create the right template for air quality governance and planning. If this works in this region of Delhi NCR, then it can be rolled out across the country. That’s where the excitement is coming from today.

There is some other action also coming from the court and many of them have already been implemented. For instance, the action on truck pollution. The court said that the trucks which do not have business in the city – and some of them just cut across the city – should not enter the city and, for that, they are making other bypass roads around Delhi to take those trucks away.

On top of that the court has said that, even then, each and every truck that enters Delhi, even for business, will have to pay an environment compensation charge for each entry into the city. So the rates have been fixed and the rates have been collected and daily collection is already happening so that is going to make going through Delhi more expensive for the truck operators than taking an alternative route. The revenue from that is being collected by the transport department and they’ll create a dayticket fund out of it which the court has said should be spent on pollution control measures. So it’s a great way of using pollute-to-pay principles to mobilise resources to support air pollution action. This is one fund and a second fund has been created too.

As you know there is a lot of concern about the diesel-isation of the car segment. In 2000, 4 per cent of new cars were diesel; today they’re almost 50 per cent, … because the diesel prices are cheap. We took this matter to the court and we said one of the reasons dieselisation of the cars was happening was because we tax diesel fuel lower than gasoline. Therefore the running costs become cheaper for the user of the car and therefore they buy diesel… We said that, if you cannot equalise the price of gasoline and diesel fuel because of the other consideration …, then you should tax the end use higher, so the cars. You can recover the additional fuel tax that the gasoline car user pays from the diesel car user. So we calculated that the lifetime running costs of diesel fuel at the same rate of taxation as gasoline, and we gave it to the court, to show that – on an average – you need to tax the diesel car an additional 25 per cent on the cost of the car, to recover the lifetime additional tax that the gasoline owner pays. But this was really fought very hard by the automobile industry. You won’t believe what happened in the court – a continuous four or five days of hearing and the auto industry was standing there, beating their chest, claiming that they are producing the cleanest vehicle in the world. Mercedes-Benz stood in the court and said that: “Ours is a modern vehicle. It’s so clean, it’s cleaner than the air of Delhi” or something like that. The chief justice asked Mercedes-Benz [whether they were] claiming that [their] car actually emits oxygen? It was fascinating.

It had become so politically charged, that they couldn’t settle down for the 25 per cent. But the car industry, to get out of that impasse, volunteered to pay 1 per cent, which the court accepted, saying that we’re still considering the other option. At this moment, the 1 per cent environment charge is now applied to all diesel cars that have an engine size of 2000cc and above. That is the big category, SUVs and the sedans. So any diesel sedan or SUV that is sold in Delhi NCR has to pay that extra 1 per cent and they have created a fund from this tax too.

There’s [also] a whole checklist on how to control dust from construction activity. They’re discussing the waste burning and also the farm fires in Punjab and Haryana.

So when this comprehensive action plan was given to the Supreme Court, it was stated that – if Delhi can meet the clean air standard – then Delhi has to reduce its pollution levels by at least 74 per cent from the current levels. There are studies now in Delhi, conducted by CPC itself, they have [looked at] about 12,000 school children in 2012, and they have found that every third child has impaired lungs.

It’s a little too early to make claims, but the pollution levels that we’ve seen after that diwali smog in Delhi are not as high as we’ve seen in the past. Is this a bending of the curve, is this going to be a trend? That still remains to be seen and clearly, if we succeed in implementing what has been listed: the graded action response plan and the comprehensive action plan, then certainly there is an opportunity. We can really make a difference, so let’s see what happens now.

We know that our public transport is not satisfactory in Delhi. We do have a metro system but the metro cannot be a silver bullet that can help you to solve your problem. Where we have slipped a lot is in our bus system, and we have not been able to revive this to the extent because, at the end of the day, buses are meant to carry more people than the metro. The metro can only be on some corridors, but buses have a chance to penetrate deeper into neighbourhoods. They have a better connectivity and there is already a court direction that Delhi should have 11-15,000 buses. We’re really falling short in numbers right now and the whole system integration, rationalisation of routes of the buses, improving the overall service level of the buses, not much has happened there. So these systems are huge under pressure, we know that.

But when we talk about public transport today in India, or in Delhi particularly, we have to understand it’s an extremely heterogenous and diversified system. There’s a hierarchy, there’s the metro, then the bus, then the three wheelers, then you have these e-ricks, you have the whole uber and ola (competitor) happening at another level. It’s a combination.

There are many options in the city, even for the rich. If I’m not using a car – Ola and Uber’s shared mobility is quite ok. I really cannot make claims that, without my car, I’m going to get totally handicapped. Initially, when we were pushing for cleaner action we still think that it is the industry that is the biggest counter-lobby. But today we realise it is also the people like you and me who use cars, the ‘don’t use my car’ syndrome is very obstructive. What’s very clear is that we certainly need to improve technology and manufacturers and industries will have to be held responsible but you cannot solve the problem only with technology. You also need mobility management you need to reduce dependence on automobiles.

[But to change lifestyles], I should be able to move in my city without needing my car. That system will have to be created. But there is huge resistance. Parking policy is one of the policies today, how do you cover the cost, how do you take away the current, hidden subsidies of free parking from the rich and make them pay for it?

There is a lot more interest today, just not from the Supreme Court. But even from the government side, now the way the whole lieutenant governor, the Niti Aayog (the National Institution for Transforming India) and the Delhi government. It’s happening and more and more focus is shifting towards compliance, towards implementation. So far, we have only seen a shift in the policy language and the policy principles. That itself is a step forward. In the past, even accepting the principles was a problem. When you really read all the new policies today they really read well. But the point is now how do you break that barrier from the policy to implementation: that’s where we all are today. I think we will certainly be able to do that, especially knowing that we have a better opportunity to do that, [despite the] congestion and the growing dependence on cars, [that] the cars you see crowding on the road meet only 15 per cent of the travel demand… Now, as a public policy, where we are making the mistake is that often you will find that 80 per cent of the transport budget goes on that 15 per cent. Whereas the opposite has to happen. So why allow that 85 per cent to move to the car. I’m not worried about the 15 per cent, focus more on the 85 per cent. That’s where the opportunity is…

When you go out on the road of Delhi, you’ll find that we have focused more and more on widening the road. Removing signals to build flyovers so vehicles get the priority for seamless movement and for speed. We do not allow people to cross where they need to cross, we barricade them and then you push them to climb over a footbridge and then they need to climb down again if they have to cross or catch a bus. So what is my city telling me? It is saying: I am making your city convenient for you to travel in a car but not convenient to take a bus or a metro. I’m constantly getting that message from my city. The way it is designed.

Secondly, the way urban planning is happening. You’re making large super blocks and you put wall around them, they don’t look like London. Just think of central London, which has got very high street density. You don’t have these big arterial roads in the middle of London which makes the city so walkable and accessible. But here we have, what we are doing, and in London, just visualise, each building, a small building block and then you have another small lane and then another building block, but now the new urban planning is you make a super block of one kilometre, two kilometres. You can’t cut across them that means you are just blocking access. So in an Indian city where traditionally we had a compact city design, if you to Kolkata, or to south Mumbai where average distance, even today in most cities of India is more than 50 per cent of the daily travel trips have an average distance of 2-4 kilometres, for that you don’t even need a metro. But with the wrong urban design, we’re increasing distances because you’re sprawling out and more distance you create by design, you’re forcing people to get motorised. You’re not linking that land use with a public transit network, so it is the urban design and road design which is forcing you to be dependent on your car and that has to stop. So an aspiration can be modified. So you give people a good sense of how liveable the city becomes, how enjoyable the city becomes if you give them a good footpath. A wide footpath where you can just walk with your friends or a good public space so you don’t have to a mall to hang out with your friends but I get a lovely public space to go and spend time. You reduce distances, you make your city more walkable, accessible. Then, for daily commuting, you don’t have to take your car out every day. So that’s where the intervention has to be, that the aspiration can be modified, you can glamourise public transport. It doesn’t have to be something that only poor people use, but you also have to make the car user pay the right price for owning and using the car, because right now they’re enjoying a whole range of subsidies.

So when you say two-car, three-car, four-car [households], it has become possible just because I can park anywhere without paying anything for it. I don’t have to pay an annual tax for my car, I don’t pay a road tax, there’s no concession on me. The moment you do all that, it will just get taken care of.

If you read our new masterplan, the transit-oriented development policy that has recently come out for Delhi and the country, our Delhi decongestion plan for the Ministry of Urban Development, they all read very well. But the question is, when it comes to allocating money … then you still have that conventional policy mindset dictating the terms…

With public transport, we need to minimise the need for interchange because the more you have to change systems, it’s inconvenient and you’re also adding to the traveller’s costs. Public transport sometimes is not even affordable for the public. Which is a shame. In fact, the biggest competitor of a bus in Delhi is the two-wheeler [scooter/motorcycle]. Because, if I board a bus, the minimum fare is 5-7rs, but – if I drive a two wheeler – then my per km running cost is 1-2rs, so it’s cheaper for me to run a two-wheeler than to board a bus. Even though the bus seems like a poor man’s vehicle in India, for a poor man the bus is more expensive. These are distortions: today we tax the bus higher than the car.