April 22, 2015 12:00:34 am
In a climate of growing concern over the quality of Delhi’s air, the Supreme Court has reaffirmed the National Green Tribunal’s ban on vehicles 15 years and older from plying on city roads. But even as the apex court rightly noted that the NGT’s move is well intentioned, terming it “good for people”, much more needs to be done for it to be effective.
There is little doubt that, as this paper has reported, a massive increase in the number of vehicles in Delhi, particularly those that run on diesel, is at least partly to blame for the alarming deterioration in its air quality over the last decade. But this ban is a blunt instrument that is unlikely to materially affect air quality unless it is accompanied by policies to shift to cleaner fuels and impose more stringent vehicular emissions standards. To begin with, experts suggest that the number of on-road vehicles that are more than 15 years old is not significant enough to make taking them off-road particularly impactful. Even if we accept that banning them from Delhi roads will make the capital’s air cleaner — a contentious assertion — other towns and cities will not be so lucky.
There are also practical considerations, such as how authorities will determine which vehicles are violating the ban. An incentive-based scrapping scheme like the US’s cash for clunkers programme, which paid people to trade in an old, polluting car and buy a new one with cleaner technology instead, could more effectively cajole compliance. More importantly, the government must mandate oil companies to provide high-quality fuel, both petrol and diesel. It must also resist pressure from the automobile industry to delay the adoption of stricter emissions norms, such as the Bharat versions of Euro V and VI — our current standard is Bharat IV (based on Euro IV), though many trucks still run on Bharat II and III.
Given that Delhi’s toxic air has generated headlines around the world, it is perhaps unsurprising that the debate has focused on measures to improve air quality in the capital. But such an approach — as reflected, for instance, in the demand for a bypass for trucks — risks disregarding the very real, and severe, problem of air pollution elsewhere in India, in urban and rural centres that do not even have the infrastructure to measure its extent. To properly combat this urgent threat to public health, the government has to take a national, not city-centric, view.
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