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When Vehicles of Comfort Turn Dangerous

With recent measures to reduce air pollution in the national capital it is becoming clear that Delhi is going to become the city-laboratory for other cities of India for testing  pollution control strategies. The Delhi government is going to introduce the odd-even number plate formula as an experiment. The Supreme Court has banned heavy engine diesel cars. The central government has decided to go along with these experiments. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has asked the ministry for transport and highways to complete the Eastern Expressway on the outer periphery of Delhi in 400 days. The idea is to get half the number of trucks that enter Delhi to divert and use the Eastern Expressway.

But are these measures enough to bring down air pollution in Delhi? It is true that much of the air pollution comes from vehicles. But the question is whether the odd-even formula, ban on heavy engine diesel cars and diversion of trucks round the periphery of the city would take care of the problem. There is no measure yet to restrict the number of private and commercial vehicles being bought or plying in the national capital. The odd-even formula is a desperate compulsory measure which might not work in practice for a variety of reasons. Carpooling is still more a subject of idle talk than a reality. The urge to own a car comes from the urge for privacy and self-pride. Carpooling compels people to travel together where individuals might feel constricted about subjects of conversation or about music they would like to hear or about talking office or family matters in response to calls. The other option, public transport, could be better, but its quality and frequency has to improve. The Delhi government has promised to increase the number of buses but it is very apparent that they would not be able to improve the quality and frequency in a few days. What is needed is doubling or trebling of the fleet, with premium and ordinary categories, as also excellence in management of traffic in order to reduce the travel time and frequency.

The Delhi government alone cannot solve the problem of air pollution as a significant contribution to it is made by the smoke from the burning of farm waste in the fields of the states of Punjab and Haryana. The two state governments, with support from the central government, must tackle the problem. It needs persuading farmers to give up the practice, but that task is easier said than done. The state governments will have to work very hard to make them not do it.

Union Minister for Transport, Highways and Shipping Nitin Gadkari has on behalf of the central government promised to reduce Delhi’s air pollution with the blending of ethanol with petrol and biodiesel with diesel. But that promise is going to take years to be real – that is, if all the measures taken to increase the production of ethanol and biodiesel (together called biofuels) bear fruit. The National Policy on Biofuels, which was announced by UPA-II in 2009, envisaged a target of 20 per cent biofuel blending by 2012. But the target could not be achieved. Why? Because the country did not have adequate quantity of seeds of Jatropha plant which was supposed to be planted across the country to produce biodiesel. Jatropha seed distribution channels are underdeveloped as the number of processing industries is very small. No exclusive markets for Jatropha seed supply have developed, leaving the farmers at the mercy of intermediaries. The gestation period of Jatropha plant is 3 to 5 years, which is a long time for farmers to receive the return. Also owing to poor research, they have to use low yield varieties. No wonder, Jatropha is grown in less than 5 lakh hecatares of low-quality wastelands in the country.

As far as ethanol is concerned, the story is the same. Maize and sugarcane are the common sources of ethanol. Farmers have not been sufficiently motivated on a large scale to shift to these biofuel crops. Sharad Pawar as agriculture minister of UPA-II had taken some negative measures that proved as disincentive to sugar mills to produce ethanol. Then experts have raised a question about the advisability of blending ethanol with petrol. They say that it is true that ethanol reduces air particulate pollution but its production causes high greenhouse gas emissions and negates any environmental benefit of the shift from fossil fuel. Besides, automobile industry experience is that while ethanol blending with petrol does not affect performance of the vehicle in terms of horsepower it lowers the mileage by as much as 25 per cent. All these issues have to be sorted out before Delhi can breathe more easily.

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