Delhi can't live with pollution forever; govt must facilitate carpooling and electric vehicles, strengthen public transport

With social distancing norms in play, there is an increased incentive to use private ridership over public transport, resulting in increased emissions.

Shayak Sengupta and Sharang Shah November 03, 2020 12:44:08 IST
Delhi can't live with pollution forever; govt must facilitate carpooling and electric vehicles, strengthen public transport

Demonstrations seeking pollution control measures in Delhi. Pramod Pushkarna/CitizenMatters.in

COVID-19 and the consequent lockdowns have wreaked havoc on the health of individuals and economies across the world. As governments and people reeled with the shock, one silver lining from the lockdown emerged – the slowdown in human activity and consumption has been a boon for the environment.

Blue skies were seen across major cities in India, which plays host to six of the 10 most polluted cities in the world. Articles studying satellite data during the period of lockdown show a 15 percent reduction in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentration levels across India from a year ago, and a similar drop in levels of Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) Likewise, PM2.5 reduced by at least 25 percent in many cities across the country during lockdown periods. NO2 and SO2 from vehicular traffic and power generation are precursor pollutants that lead to the production of PM2.5 in the air.

While we had seen a glimpse of a greener future during the lockdown, the vision is short-lived. As lockdowns end and people begin to move again, pollution levels rise to pre-lockdown levels. The haze returns over the national capital region – the Air Quality Index (AQI) fluctuates between very unhealthy and hazardous. India’s terrible air quality has become a matter of international infamy with presidential candidates in the United States bringing it up on a global stage.

Crop burning season has begun and Diwali has arrived. The deadly cocktail of crop burning, unfavourable winter weather conditions which trap vehicular and industrial pollution, and resumption of construction choke the National Capital once again. The public health emergency declared by the state government the previous year because PM2.5 levels crossed 23 times the WHO recommended amount has clearly been forgotten. If previous years are any indicator, the political blame game is about to begin with each state government claiming that their hands are tied.

Unfortunately, crop burning is a highly politicised issue with no party willing to risk losing the farmer vote and therefore, other sources of pollution must be addressed. A focus solely on long-term reform will leave citizens choking in the interim; emergency measures may suppress the problem temporarily but will do nothing to stop the recurrence. Given the multitude of sources of pollution, the solution too needs to be multi-prong. Two focus areas that emerge are power and mobility.

If the pandemic has taught us one thing, mobility is going to remain a constant. Major crises may create temporary shocks, but in the long run, the world and cities will be on the move. Mobility data from Google shows that while the recreational movement was down by 85 percent and workplace mobility was down 77 percent during the lockdown period in Delhi, it has crept back up to over 60 percent of pre-COVID levels. As such, policies should be focused on ensuring minimal emissions by incentivizing shared mobility and promoting low-emission forms of mobility such as electric.

A shift to electric is sustainable end-goal, which requires significant infrastructural investment and incentives. The Delhi government has already laid the roadmap for this process in the Delhi Electric Vehicle Policy 2020. While the figures for the uptick in electric vehicle adoption are ambitious (expected jump in EV registrations from 0.29 percent of the total registrations presently to 25 percent of the total registrations by 2024), the policy creates subsidies and incentives to push consumers and manufacturers towards electric.

As electric adoption is a decade-long game, the state and Central governments should focus on reducing the number of vehicles on the road. Investments in public transport and incentives for shared private transport would help. COVID-19 may play dampener in the use of public and shared mobility for the coming year, but policies and investments should focus on building capacities and incentives for the future.

Delhi’s public transport services were already overwhelmed, and COVID-19 has only exposed these deficiencies. With social distancing norms in play, there is an increased incentive to use private ridership over public transport, resulting in increased emissions. To offset this shift, the state government will need to invest in public transport. To make it sustainable, this investment should be focused on electrifying fleets, while mobility remains muted. Additional investment in the public trust would be required as long as the pandemic runs – low faith in the implementation of Standard Operating Procedures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 keeps people away from public transport.

To promote private ridesharing capacity, the Central government should expedite the draft ridesharing (carpooling) guidelines, which have been in the pipeline. The policy, which is not in the public domain, should allow people to seamlessly share the excess capacity for minimal costs with no bureaucratic hurdles. This will create bring about clarity within the domain and allow for private citizens to share their transport without incurring unknown costs and liabilities.

The other major recommended shift is in the power sector, which is crucial to reducing emissions as the country shifts transport from petrol and diesel to electric. Currently, air pollution emissions from thermal power stations in the country largely go uncontrolled. While any shift to electric vehicles may decrease emissions within cities like Delhi, it may increase emissions at these plants, increasing the total burden of pollution.

Many plants will likely miss their 2022 implementation deadline for norms announced in 2015 to install more pollution control at thermal plants. Consequently, the equipment upgrades for these norms provide the government optimal low hanging fruit. Pollution from these plants spreads to many cities around the country. Norms are easier to enforce because there are relatively fewer sources needing control, and upgrades will be consistent with efforts to electrify transport.

With the right mix of policies, India can find itself back on the path towards a greener future. The private investments to this end are easily offset by the positive externalities reaped by society. The government has already moved the rudder in this direction – what remains is accelerating the pace.

Shayak Sengupta is a PhD Candidate in Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University and a Visiting Associate at Centre for Social and Economic Progress (formerly Brookings India) in New Delhi. Sharang Shah is a public policy consultant with Chase India. He works on sustainability, sharing and gig economy and development sector policies.

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