Pollution in cities: remedial action must

The unacceptable air quality in our cities is a major challenge for the country. Almost 80% of the cities violate the standards prescribed by the Central Pollution Control Board. A recent study by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) showed that the whole Indo-Gangetic plain is severely polluted on account of particulate matter.

The situation would relentlessly worsen and spread to other parts of the country if remedial actions are not taken immediately. The transport sector is one of the reasons behind high levels of pollutants in cities.

Mobility demands are increasing with economic growth. The situation will only deteriorate if negative externalities associated with vehicles — emissions of pollutants — are not reduced.

The central government recently announced transition to BS VI vehicle emission norms by 2020. The move is certainly a positive step in improving the air quality of Indian cities. However, past experiences in implementing stricter emission norms in India and other countries, have shown the need for further actions in order to reap the maximum benefit out of such schemes.

Firstly, studies conducted on Euro 5 and Euro 6 vehicles in Europe have pointed out significant differences between the emissions of vehicles in the lab for type approval and the actual emissions of vehicles on-road. Clearly, the type approval testing – the current testing procedure for certification of a new model of vehicles – alone is not enough to assess the claimed emission reduction in vehicles of new technology.

Secondly, BS IV will be implemented all over the country in April 2017 and BS VI by 2020. This implies that we would still have a huge legacy of old in-use vehicles without the best available emission control systems, thus obscuring the positive impact of introduction of BS VI norms over the years.

After the development of a new model of a vehicle, the manufacturers send a sample vehicle to testing authorities to certify the vehicle according to type approval norms. The vehicles are tested in the labs and issued a certificate if found complying with the required emission norms.

Despite passing the type approval tests, vehicles may emit more in the real world conditions. To counter this, Teri recommends that a new programme, "in-use vehicle comp-liance" should be introduced.

Under this programme, a small sample of vehicles of select models should be picked up from road and again tested as per the type approval norms after discounting the deterioration of running on road over the years. In case of a comprehensive non-compliance, a detailed investigation must be issued which may lead to recall of that model of the vehicle, if necessary.

The pollution under control (PUC) mechanism for regular inspection of vehicles plying on-road has weaknesses in terms of technology and execution. India must leverage new technologies in vehicles — on-board diagnostic system (OBD) — to make the PUC mechanism much more robust. The OBD can indicate the malfunctioning of components responsible for emission control.

Hence, it can be used for inspection of vehicles. However, it must be ensured that OBD system itself is not tampered in the first place. The vehicles failing OBD inspection should then be tested on a rigorous loaded mode test at advanced inspection and certification centres. These two steps will help in confirming that all the high emitting vehicles are not able to pass the PUC test.

Older vehicles

While India is transitioning to stricter emission norms — BS IV and BS VI; older vehicles, currently running on the roads, will continue to emit pollutants several times higher. In order to reduce the overall emissions from the transport sector and expedite the transition to BS VI, it is important to modernise the existing vehicle fleet.

A wide variety of options are available for fleet modernisation. All vehicles with advanced emission control technologies passing the above mentioned PUC test must be given special privileges such as reduced parking fee, entry to low emission zones and so on. On the other hand, older vehicles must be labelled to employ restrictions in their mobility.

This will incentivise the vehicle owners to shift from older vehicles to vehicles equipped with advanced emission control technologies. Financial mechanisms must be deployed to incentivise the vehicle owners of older technologies to either scrap their vehicles or retrofit them with cleaner technologies, if possible. All BS-I and older vehicles failing two consecutive PUC tests must be phased out.

In conclusion, in order to reap the maximum benefit out of BS VI norms, three follow-up actions are extremely necessary: 1) ensuring that the vehicles emit the same amount of pollutants as they are certified for in the labs; 2) strengthened inspection and maintenance system for in-use vehicles, and 3) reduction in the number of older, highly polluting vehicles running on the road.