India’s Policies on Air Pollution

India’s policy on air pollution and public transport has us asking the same question we ask when we get on a crowded local train — where do we stand?


Recently, Germany announced that they would be experimenting with free public transport in an attempt to cut air pollution in the country. “Effectively fighting air pollution without any further unnecessary delays is of the highest priority for Germany,” their ministers said. Last year, New Delhi recorded an AQI of 999 — the quality of air was so bad, the number was beyond the scale that is used to record air quality.

Masks are not a long-term solution to air pollution, but government policy is.

Clean Air for Delhi is the newest campaign by the Union Environment Ministry and the Delhi government, launched on February 10th, 2018. The campaign penalises pollution-related violations, and has seen 4,347 violations and 1,892 penalties amounting to Rs. 54 crores in its first week. The campaign is laudable for its initiative in conducting (undisclosed) experiments and collecting data to identify a long-term policy framework to combat air pollution.

But the Odd-Even policy is not enough.

Earlier, the Delhi government experimented with the odd-even policy, by which vehicles with licence numbers ending in odd and even digits would ply on the roads on alternate days. The policy failed to lower pollution in Delhi but brought about other observations. Firstly, it was noted that when vehicles slow down due to congestion on the roads, they emit more smoke. Free flowing traffic helps. This means that less number of cars on the roads is a good thing. However, Delhi’s odd-even policy failed because other major factors of air pollution were not accounted for — transit freight traffic, agricultural crop burning, municipal solid waste burning, road dust and construction dust. Secondly, the odd-even policy resulted in an increase in metro ridership. This is good — the benefits of public transport are well established in cutting air pollution. It would not work, however, because the compliance was forced and the incentives to use public transport are absent.

Cars and cars everywhere but not a seat (in the bus) to sit in.

In just five years (2012 to 2017), Mumbai added one million cars to its streets. Production of vehicles in India grew from around 5 million in 2000–01 to 14 million in 2009–10, and to 23.96 million in 2015–16. In contrast, there aren’t nearly enough buses.

Research indicates that Delhi’s odd-even policy may work if it had a more robust bus system. Citizens shun public transport because Delhi’s buses are overcrowded. Delhi has 272 buses per million people, while Maharashtra has 228. In states like Bihar (2 per million) and Odisha (19 per million), the situation is dismal. The government must promote the production of buses to boost public transport.

This is BS — what the Supreme Court said.

In March, last year, the Supreme Court of India ruled that vehicles not compliant with Bharat Stage IV (BS IV) emission standards cannot be sold after March 31st. Health and environmental concerns due to air pollution greatly outweighed the setback to the automobile industry (Rs. 15,000 crores).

BS IV is a standard of emissions which allows only 50 parts per million (ppm) sulphur compared with up to 350 parts per million under BS III. So severe is India’s air pollution, that BS V standards will be skipped and BS VI norms are proposed to come in by April 2020. BS VI stipulates a low 10 ppm of sulphur. The Supreme Court has indicated that enforcement of the standard will be strict, and stated that, “The health of the people is far, far more important than the commercial interests of the manufacturers”.

The appalling increase in the number of vehicles on our streets is an indication of where the government’s priorities lie. More citizens purchasing cars means a boost to our economy. The government needs to realise that our economic progress means nothing without healthy, happy citizens and cities. If the government focuses instead on enacting policies to build a sustainable public transport system of buses, trains and metros, India might be able to stop struggling for air.

Sanaya Patel is an Editor at One Future Collective.

Featured image: Zee Business

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