Pollution in India has now become a national health crisis

India has 14 of the 15 cities in the world with the maximum air pollution. In Delhi, pollution levels attain dangerous proportions as Diwali approaches. The lungs and brains of a large percentage of children are getting irreversibly damaged. The country has the highest rate of deaths from chronic respiratory diseases and asthma. This is a national health crisis which calls for urgent action.

While there is no magic bullet such as odd-even, there are feasible measures which would make a huge difference in a few years. The easiest would be to get all households to use clean energy for cooking with liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), or, electricity. Burning of cow dung cakes and firewood for cooking not only harms the lungs and eyes of women, it is also a major source of all air pollution. Electricity is targeted to reach all households by next year. Its use for cooking can be promoted. LPG cylinders through Ujjwala can be made to reach everybody in a few years. However, the really poor cannot afford to pay more than Rs 200 or so a month for cooking. The first hundred units of electricity in a month, enough for lighting and cooking, could be provided at Rs 3 per unit, or, a LPG cylinder for Rs 300. This can be done through a subsidy from the government, or, cross-subsidy by the energy companies.

A market-based solution for the burning of crop residue would work best. An attractive enough price for crop residue for conversion to briquettes to be burnt in coal fired stations, or, for generating electricity directly through gasification would put an end to crop burning. The transition would be driven by private investment and without any subsidy. Thermal plants need to offer a viable price for briquettes and the distribution companies for electricity from crop residue.

Phasing out the most polluting vehicles, such as old trucks, buses and tempos, at the earliest, is an unavoidable necessity. This has to be a countrywide measure as air pollution moves across villages and towns. Implementation would be easier if there is a considerably lower price for a new vehicle when the old one is traded in and there is a system of scrapping old vehicles that can be closely monitored.It could easily be done by the government foregoing a substantial portion of the GST on such vehicles. Germany successfully implemented a trade in programme at the time of the global financial crisis of 2008 to generate additional demand for their auto industry.

The supply of fuel of contemporary international standards, Bharat Stage Six (BS 6), now being implemented, would make a difference only gradually as more new BS 6 compliant vehicles get on the road. But for an immediate impact, all new taxi, bus and three wheeler permits for running within cities should be given only for electric vehicles. Sufficient number of charging stations would naturally need to be created well in advance. The huge potential of electric vehicles in reducing air pollution is not being adequately recognised.

Old coal-fired thermal power plants in, or, those close to major urban centres need to be closed down forthwith. This can be done without difficulty as there is surplus power generating capacity with much more in the pipeline. However, only a firm central mandate will make this happen.

All industrial clusters need a diagnostic audit for air pollution. Technically feasible measures with state financial assistance and in partnership with industrial units would have to be implemented to reduce air pollution. Clearly, the use of coal for energy and heating by small industrial units has to be phased out. The extension of a gas grid to all industrial areas has been unduly delayed in the country. Electricity for continuous process industries to be provided at lower rates reflecting actual costs of supply would also help.

For all this and more to happen, the central, state and city governments have to agree to do what it takes, including providing adequate funds. Finances can come from the coal, or, a new clean air cess. The health costs to the nation of inaction are far higher. Coordinated action across multiple institutions is never easy. Sustained political commitment would be an essential prerequisite.

Ajay Shankar is distinguished fellow, TERI

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Oct 25, 2018 12:49 IST

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