NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Environmental and public health experts are warning that an explosion in the number of motorised vehicles on India’s roads is threatening the health and economic security of its population.
Stricter standards are needed to control vehicular pollution and regulate traffic, they say, along with moves to popularise non-motorised transport.
A survey on vehicle emissions in India released by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) in November found the number of vehicles on the country’s roads has nearly trebled to 130 million in 2013, from 50 million in 2003.
It also revealed that vehicle nitrogen oxide (NOX) emissions have increased by 10 percent since 2003. NOX is harmful to human health and combines with hydrocarbons to make ozone, which is also damaging to plants. The ICCT warned that the rate of increase in NOX emissions is set to accelerate in the coming years without further action.
According to the survey, while the government is taking steps to reduce vehicle emissions, only around one third of the fuel presently used in India conforms to the environmentally friendly Bharat Stage IV (BS IV) standards.
“Fuel sulphur levels are three to seven times higher in the rest of the country,” where BS IV fuel is not used, said Gaurav Bansal, a researcher at ICCT.
“Diesel vehicle PM (particulate matter) emissions won’t be reduced dramatically unless all new vehicles comply with BS IV standards,” he added.
Diesel vehicles are responsible for 56 percent of all PM emissions and 70 percent of all NOX emissions from on-road vehicles in India.
According to the ICCT report, the adulteration of gasoline with kerosene and diesel, which are cheaper because of government subsidies, is a further reason why fuel often does not comply with the highest standards.
A paper published in November last year by Tel Aviv University revealed that Indian cities were becoming polluted even more rapidly than cities in China, which has gained notoriety for its levels of air pollution.
From 2002 to 2010, Bangalore fared worst among Indian cities, with a 34 percent increase in pollution levels, although other cities also showed double-digit increases, according to the research.
IMPACTS ON HEALTH
A 2012 report by the World Health Organisation’s Global Burden of Disease project says that outdoor air pollution is the fifth largest killer in India, with about 620,000 premature deaths occurring there from air pollution-related diseases every year.
According to the ICCT’s survey, 40,000 premature deaths are caused each year in Indian cities by vehicle PM emissions.
Sandeep Salvi, director of the Pune-based Chest Research Foundation, noted a strong correlation between vehicular pollution and respiratory diseases. “More than 5 percent of children in Indian schools suffer from asthma, which has a direct link with pollution,” he said.
The growing number of vehicles on India’s roads, along with emissions from factories and burning of firewood, is the major contributor to these ills.
“If we are serious about combating air pollution, then we have no option but to think of restraining the growth of cars,” said Sunita Narayan, head of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a nongovernmental organisation in New Delhi.
“We must realise that this pollution is not acceptable. It is killing us – and no longer softly or slowly,” she added.
Anumita Roychowdhury, also of the CSE, stressed that the gains “made in some of our cities by taking measures like introducing vehicular emission standards and switching over to least polluting fuels are being watered down by burgeoning vehicles”.
Some experts argue that the alarming statistics about the impact of vehicular pollution on health should be enough to jolt policy makers into action.
“It is not only about cleaning the air, but improving living standards and saving lives,” said ICCT’s Bansal.
He believes 175,000 premature deaths could be avoided by 2030 through policy measures based on best practices around the world. These include using greener fuels, regulating the number of vehicles on the road, and improving non-motorised transport.
Rising vehicle numbers and fuel prices have implications both for India’s economy and its energy security. Vehicles are the country’s second-largest consumer of energy (18 percent) after industry (42 percent). Around one third of India’s energy needs are met by petroleum, of which 80 percent is imported.
The ICCT supports the introduction of buses running on compressed natural gas (CNG) in many cities to reduce emissions, Bansal said.
India’s transport minister, Oscar Fernandes, told Thomson Reuters Foundation that the government is planning to create a network of CNG vehicles across the whole of India, not only in metropolitan areas. “We are hopeful of covering a considerable portion of the country within a few years,” he added.
Fernandes said the government was rapidly improving public transport in order to reduce congestion on the roads and discourage expanding car ownership.
Nevertheless, some car users are far from ready to give up their vehicles.
“Unless the public transport improves significantly in Indian cities, people who (can) afford cars will not stop driving them,” said Sanjay Singh, a banker in Delhi.
According to Kirit Parikh, a former member of the government’s Planning Commission, if India upped the public transport share of its overall transportation by 8 percent and non-motorised transport by 4 percent by 2020, it would save 29 megatonnes of CO2 emissions and more than $29 billion in oil imports between now and then.
Anvita Arora, CEO of Innovative Transport Solutions in New Delhi, stressed that creating more space for non-motorised transport would bring multiple benefits
“Non-motorised modes of mobility like walking, bicycle and cycle rickshaw are green modes of transport that belong to the low-carbon path, do not consume energy or cause pollution, and in addition provide social equity besides employment. They should get first priority in infrastructure development and funding,” she said.
Athar Parvaiz is an independent journalist based in Srinagar and New Delhi, India.