Anup Bandivadekar, Passenger Vehicles Program Director of the US-headquartered International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) tells Nitin Sethi of the lessons from the odd-even scheme and how India lacks a planned approach to reducing air pollution. Edited excerpts:
Is the odd-even scheme an effective way to manage air-pollution in Delhi?
The Delhi government said it was a desperate measure for desperate times. That is about it. That is the utility of a measure like this. There are two important things that if we can take out of it and carry it forward then it would be great. One, you saw a fairly broad range of support from people for some form of car restriction. Getting that idea in our mind that some sort of restriction on personal car is necessary – in what format that is done is a separate debate – but that some sort of restriction is likely going to be needed. Second take-away is that it’s an emergency measure when you know the meteorological conditions are going to get really nasty, that air pollution is going to be really bad then you need to pull out all stops. If you want to reduce the acute part of that exposure then measures like this can be put in place and this is just one of several emergency measures that should be put in place. It is important for the Delhi government to retain that authority. It does not have the potential as a long-term solution. In fact, if you do it over long term pretty much every study tells you that people are very innovative and they always find a way around.
You don’t want to have it well-known and broadcast weeks or months in advance. Essentially you ought to give people a 24-48 hour warning that we can see the weather patterns developing and you know this is the time when we expect particulate matter levels to shoot up like anything, we are going to have one week of restrictions. That is something Delhi government and other cities that have the forecasting abilities should be able to do.
Is political leadership important to fight air pollution?
It is vital. See the example of Bogota, Colombia. What Bogota has achieved – it’s not a very rich place. They have got their own fair share of inequality and general economic issues. It’s not a technologically advanced place either. But what they have been able to accomplish in terms of giving priority to buses, developing a great system that can carry a lot of people and work with those who are affected with systems like BRT. They had even more complicated solution that they were trying to forge – asking people running minibuses to shut down their businesses. They had to find a way for them to find a livelihood. It was a culture led by the Mayor of the city sustained over a period of time. You see now after 20 years it still carries forward. Political leadership can sometimes fail. Say in New York City when Bloomberg was the mayor and he wanted to have congestion pricing, he was foiled by the state legislature of New York which didn’t let the city of New York go ahead with it. At one level the leadership was quite strong but someone at another level spoiled it. This is one of the things we are seeing right now in Delhi. Whether it was odd-even or last week when Union government decided to leapfrog to BS-VI fuel, it showed some level of political willingness to deal with air quality as a serious problem. That is a welcome change. I can’t remember when it last happened. And I am very happy to go to the ministers and thank them, they should get the credit.
Long-term solutions – do they essentially a lot of time?
That is a challenge with everything with policies at a city-scale. In some ways the technological solutions are the easy solutions because you can deploy them and they very rarely require behavioural change or really altering the ways we live. But, some of the changes that come under the broad umbrella of sustainable transport will require – giving priority to walking, bicycling and buses – treating these as part of your urban development framework – these necessarily take a long time. I spend most of my time on technology solution. Not because I think other ways of dealing with sustainable transport are not important. But, quite frankly the technology solutions are the easy solutions. To change urban infrastructure is very difficult and it’s very difficult to see how a city is going to change over time. It requires a concerted effort that actually engages people who use that infrastructure, not just a few smart people sitting somewhere. That you can do with technology solutions. But it’s much more difficult with things that require engaging with people who are part of the urban environment. By definition it will take time.
Have other cities achieved these behavioural changes?
A good example of that is Amsterdam. It was not always this heaven for bicycles. This was a behavioural change and a collective realisation from the people, political willingness and financial support to bring about that change and it seems, as of now, that it is a lasting thing. It was not always the same. We have seen a similar kind of change in Copenhagen.
But each city requires a different model, these cannot be replicated?
Exactly. Again technology is very easy to replicate. For urban design and infrastructure you cannot have a cookie-cutter approach. Every city is unique –the kind of density we have in India and the kind of mixed traffic we have in India – that is very unique. Everybody from the man pulling a manual cart to two wheelers, everything is there. That is not so common across the world. It is non-trivial. Having got in the position that we have one cannot expect easy solutions. Hence, more restrictive policies are likely going to be needed. The odd-even thing seems very coercive, but we haven’t yet graduated to the real ones. In China, this whole phenomenon of capping the number of vehicles that can be registered in the city each year – it has become an accepted phenomenon in a short period of time. This is now the policy in not just Beijing and Shanghai but in dozens of cities now where basically you have to win a lottery that year to get a license plate – you can buy a car but you just can’t operate it. And that is quite frankly looks difficult to be achieved in the Indian conditions. So, to the extent that people have been forced to think about ways to control the number of vehicles plying on the road, this has been good.
Is there a plan to the way Delhi or India is going about fighting air pollution?
If you look at the different things that people are proposing – whether it is the Supreme Court or the NGT – saying you can’t sell some kind of diesel cars, or some trucks not coming in to the city – in technical jargon terms this is an effort to create a low-emission zone in Delhi without really doing it properly. Ideally what one would do is to say look, we need to create this low-emission zone in Delhi and let us really figure out the best ways of doing it and going after it. Environmentally-friendly part of me says this (odd-even scheme) is good. Hurray! Yeah, this is great. Technocrat part of me is says that this is no way of going about it.
So that’s the thing. You have gotten to the stage where desperate measures are called for and that is always going to be sub-optimal. So it is hard to just go on praising it because it is not the best thing to do but what are we to do at this stage?
When politics mixes with science you will always produce a policy that is technocratically sub-optimal, right?
That is always the case. That is fine. My biggest pet peave about all of this is, even after all of this happening is that we still don’t talk about a systematic semi-scientific approach to managing it. There is a lot more measurement now in Delhi and then there is the air quality index and yet there is a complete disconnect between that information and what policy is being undertaken.
In an ideal setting you would say my air quality is bad, I have a certain goal set under the air quality standards, here is my emission inventory, here are my sources, these are my lower cost opportunities that are politically feasible, if I implement then over the next five years this is the kind of improvement I shall see. Over time you shall run out of these solutions and then move to higher more difficult solutions. But, the current situation seems like with their favourite solution. I favour BS-VI standards so that is what I am saying to everyone. Someone else is saying something else. People are just throwing things at it that they think are important. But, really, there is no comprehensive assessment of what is actually needed to get there.
This is not just a Delhi problem. Delhi is just one of the most polluted cities where data is recorded. You need a proper system for doing this and not ad-hoc measures. I am not against these measures because they are likely to help in the short-term at least. But if in 20 years time say if we need to get to some place better, we have to put together an air quality management system. Right now it is nobody’s job. It is somebody’s job to make the national ambient air quality standards, but it is nobody’s job to see that those standards are attained.
You should go ask in the environment ministry or other ministries whose job is it to attain these standards – that person does not exist. He or she doesn’t exist at the state pollution control board or the centre. There are no strings attached to what their performance measured on. They don’t need to show their plans of how they are going to attain the air quality. Its not like people are not smart. There are lots of smart people there; it is just that the process they are following is not smart at all.
Is this the first place where you see judicial intervention having led to so much change?
Judicial intervention is needed and has come to play a role in different parts of the world. Latest example you have in Europe and in UK in particular. Much of Europe is non-compliance with its air quality standards. It is mostly a NO2 problem because of the diesel vehicles though there are other reasons as well. Last year, UK Supreme Court quashed the government's existing plans and ordered them to come up with a more effective strategy to control air pollution using measures such as low emission zones, and congestion charging. Just this past week, Administrative Court of Wiesbaden in Germany has asked the State of Hesse to consider ban on diesel cars and congestion charging in a new air pollution plan or face a stiff fine.
What is this confusion about having sources contribute to air pollution and multiple but conflicting source apportionment studies?
The most publicised study is the six city study that CPCB commissioned – that one actually was seriously flawed for Delhi and Mumbai. There was a problem. Nevertheless you are bound to see variation in apportionment studies even though there are better standardised protocols because there are differences in methodologies, where the measurements have been taken and how they come up with their emission inventories and factors. The Health Effects Institute did a meta-study across Asia of 30 plus major studies and what they found is that vehicular sources contribute 25-30% of pollution road, in that range. In some cities it can be higher and in some lower but it was roughly in that range. That remains true in places like Delhi too.
The key thing is not to get bogged down by the source apportionment studies and use that as an excuse to not to act in one certain area. The science of this is advancing quite a bit. People are moving forward from simply apportioning the sources to dealing with the exposure to the sources. The important reason that makes vehicular sources and diesel gensets important to deal with is that these sources cause greater degree of exposure than say a power plant on the outskirt of the town with a long smoke stack. The aggregate emissions are higher but the exposure is a lot less and that makes a difference to the health impacts. People are either purposefully creating confusion on this front or they genuinely don’t understand these scientific facts. If you were looking at the health impacts regardless of source apportionment results you will come to the conclusion that yes, you have to deal with the vehicular pollution as it is rather important. There is sometimes a genuine confusion, but sometimes its manufactured confusion. These studies have a role to play. They should never be one-off and should be work in progress but everything we know as of now tells us in which direction to move even as science evolves.