Smooth ride, it ain't

Sustainable transport requires us not only to ensure that the transport systems in place meet our mobility requirements, but are also sustainable in terms of energy efficiency and environment friendliness. The level of pollution in Delhi recently has been a matter of grave concern. However, it is not just Delhi that is polluted; 80 per cent of our cities exceed the prescribed standards. Our concern should go beyond Delhi and see how vehicular emissions should be contained in all cities.

We already have two Indias in terms of fuel quality and emission standards; BS-IV for some cities and BS III for the rest of India. The life of an Indian citizen living in Allahabad or Raipur, which have higher pollution levels than Delhi is as valuable as the life of a citizen in Delhi. This invidious distinction between Indians living in different cities should go.

We failed to draw up a road map for fuel quality and vehicular standards beyond 2010 as was recommended by the auto fuel policy committee chaired by former director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CISR) RA Mashelkar in 2002. Although the committee had recommended that policy should be reviewed every five years, a new committee was constituted only as recently as 2013 and its recommendations became available only in 2014. In the process, we lost five valuable years without any improvement in the fuel quality and emission standards. The road map now proposed by way of advancement of the new committee's recommendations talks about BS IV fuel being made available all over the country by 2016, BS V by 2019-20 and BS VI emission norms by 2023-24. Even these advanced datelines put India nearly 10 years behind the US and Europe.

There is no reason whatsoever for delaying the introduction of BS V fuel till 2019. Indian refineries can be mandated and enabled to supply BS V fuels by 2018, if necessary by importing what cannot be produced in India. There is also no reason why the setting up of an expert committee to specify BS-VI norms should wait until 2017 as recommended by the committee. It can be done tomorrow so that the standards are set by 2017 and introduced by 2021.

Introduction of BS V fuel would also facilitate the use of after treatment devices (eg. diesel particle filter) as retrofits for vehicles already in use. Research shows that the benefits of adopting these advanced norms outweigh the costs of implementation; the initial costs of refinery upgradation can be met by a slight increase in fuel prices.

Other than newer vehicles, those which are already in use need also to be inspected and maintained to comply with the prescribed emission standards. At present, the Pollution Under Control (PUC) programme only checks the idle emissions and does not reflect the real world driving conditions. Nevertheless, it is important to tighten the PUC norms and streamline the testing procedure. Also, it would be better to set up well-equipped centralised inspection centres in every city in place of the existing decentralised PUC centres.

Despite the provision of heavy penalties, it is reported that merely 21 per cent of vehicles appear for PUC testing in Delhi. Instead of quarterly testing, annual testing of vehicles across India in centralised centres, as in the US and China, would ensure higher coverage. However, PUC checking alone is not adequate to test the emissions of criteria pollutants like PM and NOx, which are the pollutants that cause damage to human health and agriculture. It is, therefore, necessary to introduce an ‘inuse vehicle compliance programme’ as in the developed countries to ensure that vehicles actually comply throughout their useful life with the emission standards (type approval standards) against which they were originally tested at the manufacturing stage, after applying deterioration factors.

The driving cycles used for testing vehicles for type approval need to be consistent with the real world driving conditions. A study had observed that in 10 Indian cities, the real world driving conditions were very different from the prescribed Indian driving cycles used for type approval. The more arduous real world driving conditions in these cities - idling, more acceleration and decelerations - lead to higher on-road emissions even though the vehicles may comply with the PUC standards or even the type approval standards. A move towards the more comprehensive world harmonised test procedures which cover a variety of driving conditions should be explored. This would ensure that the emission of criteria pollutants conforms to the prescribed standards in real life conditions.

Other than technical issues, there this also a need to arrest the exponential growth of vehicles in India, which grew from 5 million vehicles in 1980 to 159 million in 2012; of which cars and two-wheelers account for 137 million (86 per cent).

During the decade of 1990 to 2000, we have added more vehicles than we did in the first 40 years after independence. If our economy continues to grow, as one hopes it would, the vehicle numbers would increase to approximately 400million by 2030. About 80 per cent of this would be personal vehicles, approximately 70 million cars and 268 million two wheelers.

There is no reason why vehicle ownership cannot be decoupled from economic growth. Singapore and Hong Kong with much higher per capita incomes have fewer cars than Delhi. Shanghai and Beijing limit the number of car purchases as does Singapore. All these cities have invested massively in public transport to provide an alternative to personal vehicles. London and Singapore have introduced congestion charges and high parking charges to discourage the use of cars. We as a country have not thought of any transport demand management measures to curb the use of personal vehicles.

Unless we have also have a long term strategy we may succeed in reducing pollution in Delhi today, but see it come back to haunt the generation of the 2030s.