Delhi's killer air: Better public transportation a solution

There is no doubt that the killer air is causing a slow poisoning of India's capital. Nevertheless, the quick fix solution to pollution is not dilution. There is no doubt that New Delhi needs to reduce its air pollution but to an analytical mind the odds that the 'odd-even' vehicle rationing system unilaterally imposed by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal may not bring about the desired results in quantitatively controlling air pollution.

PTI| Last Updated: Jan 01, 2016, 13:43 PM IST
Delhi's killer air: Better public transportation a solution

New Delhi: There is no doubt that the killer air is causing a slow poisoning of India's capital. Nevertheless, the quick fix solution to pollution is not dilution. There is no doubt that New Delhi needs to reduce its air pollution but to an analytical mind the odds that the 'odd-even' vehicle rationing system unilaterally imposed by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal may not bring about the desired results in quantitatively controlling air pollution.

At the turn of the century when Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) was introduced on orders of the Supreme Court, the killer air over Delhi indeed cleared out, but then such a clinically radical measure was just not being attempted but a tame politically correct solution was being tried.

Ideally, the only solution is to make public transportation cheap and convenient so that India's love affair with diesel-fired cars is curbed. If one looks at the source apportionment study of air pollution put together by civil engineer Mukesh Sharma from IIT, Kanpur, one finds that vehicles are not the biggest culprit for causing air pollution; but dust -- mostly road and construction dust -- is the devil.

Two thirds of the particulate matter below 10 microns or PM-10 can be attributed to dust and about 40 per cent of the PM 2.5 is accounted by road dust. Vehicles at best contribute between 9-20 per cent of the PM-10 and PM-2.5 levels respectively, so vehicles are really not the worst polluters. If one further analyses data from the IIT-Kanpur study which itself still remains a 'draft report' and who knows how the data may change.

Among the entire vehicular population of Delhi, the biggest polluters are trucks contributing about half the pollution followed by two-wheelers that contribute two-thirds of the pollution. Four wheelers contribute only a tenth of the pollution of Delhi. To take the 'odd-even' rationing formula a bit further at best half of the four-wheelers will be off the roads between 8 am and 8 pm in the first half of January.

This should theoretically reduce the pollution load caused by four wheelers by half, but then since they are not the biggest villains to expect that the air would be cleaner really needs a quantum jump in imagination. In addition, since 'car-pooling' is being recommended in a big way, it would not be 'odd to assume' that the 'odd' car that works on an 'odd' day would not be over-working as extra 'car-pooled' passengers will need to be dropped.

This should incrementally increase the pollution load. In addition, one may see old more polluting vehicles being plied on the roads since citizens need to even their lives on odd days. Experts also fear that people who can afford may actually buy more vehicles so causing a spike in car numbers. May be the Delhi government seeks to mop up more one time lump-sum road tax collection revenues. It is reported that the 'odd-even' formula for rationing vehicles on roads whenever it is implemented to clean the dirty air over Paris, the city authorities in France attract the citizens to public transportation by making it free of charge.

May be the next populist measure the Aam Aadmi Party government of Delhi could implement is to make travel on the Delhi Metro and the Delhi Transport Corporation free for the days when road rationing is implemented. As Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, points out that the National Capital Region (NCR) houses the country's worst polluting Badarpur Power Station that incidentally continues to operate and ironically the country's cleanest thermal power station located at Bawana in the NCR remains shut down since there is shortfall of Piped Natural Gas.

A drop in a few percentage points of air pollution may actually not be noticeable at all if one were to factor in weather patterns since such small variations happen on a daily basis depending on whether there is strong surface wind that dilutes the pollution by sweeping it away into the hinterland. M Rajeevan, an atmospheric scientist and Secretary of the Ministry of Earth Sciences, New Delhi, says not enough is known quantitatively on how air pollution dilutes in the atmosphere over Delhi since the contribution of weather and wind in dispersing toxic gasses in the chaos of the tropical atmosphere over Delhi remains a mysterious unknown X-factor.

The well-intentioned thrust to control air pollution by the Delhi government may actually boomerang since the desired results of controlling air pollution may not be forthcoming since quick fix solutions tend to breakdown as easily. Moreover, if the citizens cooperate whole-heartedly with Kejriwal and they still do not witness a perceptible drop in pollution levels, they would be highly dejected.

A flagging public support would augur very badly in the long-term effort at controlling the killer air that is poisoning our lungs.

Therefore, solution to pollution is not dilution but a long-term well thought-out strengthening of the already quaking public transport system of the National Capital Region.