EARLY THIS month, I was in the Delhi High Court, where a bat­tery of lawyers had filed sep­a­rate pe­ti­tions against the odd-even scheme of the Delhi govern­ment. This is a scheme to ra­tion car us­age so that in the crit­i­cally pol­luted win­ter months only half the ve­hi­cles are on the road. Their ar­gu­ments were that the scheme had led to enor­mous in­con­ve­nience and worse, daily pol­lu­tion data showed no im­pact on air qual­ity. Cars, they said, were not re­spon­si­ble for pol­lu­tion.

I had heard this ar­gu­ment ear­lier in the Supreme Court. The court was lis­ten­ing to our ur­gent ap­peal to take steps to re­duce toxic air pol­lu­tion in the city. It was packed with the coun­try’s most pow­er­ful lawyers—mostly for­mer min­is­ters—all rep­re­sent­ing au­to­mo­bile com­pa­nies. They were ag­i­tated about the court’s di­rec­tion to stop the sale of new diesel ve­hi­cles above 2,000 cc in the Na­tional Cap­i­tal Re­gion, the area con­tigu­ous to Delhi and where work and of­fices are seam­lessly spread. Their ve­he­ment ar­gu­ment that their diesel-fu­elled lux­ury ve­hi­cles are so clean made the oth­er­wise sober and re­strained Chief Jus­tice of In­dia to re­mark, “So do they emit oxy­gen?”

The sum of their ar­gu­ment goes as fol­lows: ve­hi­cles are not re­spon­si­ble for air pol­lu­tion; even if they are, then cars are not re­spon­si­ble, and trucks and two-wheel­ers con­trib­ute the bulk of emis­sions. But even if cars are re­spon­si­ble, then “our” new diesel ve­hi­cles are not re­spon­si­ble. So, go do some­thing else to clean up Delhi’s air. Leave us to sell and leave us to drive.

Let’s un­der­stand the facts. It is more cer­tain to­day that two ma­jor causes of air pol­lu­tion in Delhi are road dust and ve­hi­cles. The other source of pol­lu­tion is burn­ing of coal in power sta­tions, other in­dus­trial units and houses, but this is still much less in this re­gion than the first two. This is not to say that ac­tion is not to be taken against all. This is to say that no plan for air pol­lu­tion con­trol can suc­ceed with­out hard steps to re­strain the growth of ve­hi­cles, par­tic­u­larly the grossly pol­lut­ing kinds. It is also clear that con­trol­ling road dust will de­mand mul­ti­pronged ac­tion to pave, green and wa­ter the side­walks. But road dust gen­er­a­tion is also a func­tion of the ve­hi­cles be­cause the more we drive the more dust is raised and re-cir­cu­lated. Worse, the coat­ing of ve­hi­cle fumes makes the dust toxic. So, ur­ban road dust is not just dust, but poi­son.

Of all ve­hi­cles, are cars and diesel to blame? Yes, and let me ex­plain why. There are three ma­jor seg­ments—trucks, two-wheel­ers and cars. In Delhi, buses and three-wheel­ers have al­ready switched to com­pressed nat­u­ral gas, which emits less par­tic­u­lates than diesel ve­hi­cles. Trucks are bad news for pol­lu­tion. They are old, mostly over­loaded and still op­er­ate on even dirtier diesel and tech­nol­ogy. This is be­cause cleaner diesel is not avail­able across the coun­try, and truck mak­ers make profit by sell­ing ve­hi­cles with re­ally bad tech­nol­ogy in the name of pub­lic goods trans­port.

It is for this rea­son that the Cen­tre for Sci­ence and En­vi­ron­ment, where I work, has done a de­tailed in­ves­ti­ga­tion into truck pol­lu­tion and de­manded that an en­vi­ron­ment com­pen­sa­tion tax be im­posed on th­ese ve­hi­cles if they are tran­sit­ing through the pol­luted air­shed of Delhi. We have also asked for cleaner fuel and tech­nol­ogy to be in­tro­duced to­day, not to­mor­row. The Supreme Court has heard us; im­posed the tax and al­ready there are some 20 per cent fewer trucks in Delhi. The Cen­tral govern­ment has also heard us and de­cided to leapfrog to Euro VI, the Euro­pean fuel-ve­hi­cle emis­sions stan­dards that can bring dras­tic im­prove­ment to diesel ve­hi­cles by 2020. This is an ad­vance­ment of over four years and will be a big game changer. In­ci­den­tally, it was also op­posed tooth and nail by the gag­gle of au­to­mo­bile lawyers in the Supreme Court on that day.

Then come pri­vate ve­hi­cles, of which two-wheel­ers be­cause of their sheer num­bers con­trib­ute the bulk of emis­sions. Cars add to some 10-15 per cent of ve­hi­cle emis­sions but this con­tri­bu­tion is much more when you take the im­pact of con­ges­tion on the road. It is for this rea­son that the re­port of source in­ven­tory—es­ti­mat­ing the pol­lu­tion sources—by the In­dian In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, Kan­pur, finds that in cer­tain congested ar­eas of Delhi cars, par­tic­u­larly diesel cars, add up to 6090 per cent of the PM 2.5—tiny par­tic­u­lates that are most toxic. It also finds that sec­ondary par­tic­u­lates—formed from gases like ni­tro­gen ox­ides and emit­ted from diesel ve­hi­cles and coal burn­ing—are a big cause of air pol­lu­tion in Delhi’s air­shed. So, cars, par­tic­u­larly “clean” and “new” diesel ones, which are legally al­lowed to emit seven times more than petrol, are im­por­tant part of the pol­lu­tion story. That’s why the ra­tioning of ve­hi­cles based on their odd-even num­ber plate has had im­pact in Delhi. This win­ter Delhi has seen weather con­di­tions that are hor­ren­dous for pol­lu­tion—still air, high mois­ture lev­els which trap par­ti­cles and win­ter in­ver­sion. It is a fact that in the first week of odd-even, pol­lu­tion lev­els in­creased but this was be­cause weather con­di­tions turned foul. The emer­gency step of tak­ing half the cars off the road meant that the pol­lu­tion spike was mod­er­ated. This is a big achieve­ment.

The long-term so­lu­tion is to make Delhi and its vicin­ity free of two-wheel­ers and cars per­ma­nently. This can only be pos­si­ble when we in­vest in pub­lic trans­port at a scale never done be­fore. To­day only 10-15 per cent of Delhi and its neigh­bour­hood drive cars, but this is al­ready the cause of con­ges­tion and pol­lu­tion. There is no way we can plan for the rest to drive cars. This is why odd-even should be­come our way of life. Let’s share cars; take a bus or metro; cy­cle or walk.

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