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Fuel to the Fire


 [ SUNDAY, JANUARY 13, 2002  12:10:12 AM ]
HE Supreme Court has given some more time for bus operators in Delhi to convert all their buses to CNG. Meanwhile, the government of India constituted a high-powered committee chaired by R M Mashelkar, director-general, CSIR, to recommend an auto fuel policy for the country.

The committee has submitted an interim report which suggests that we should specify performance standards and not specific technologies for pollution control.

This is in keeping with policies followed by all civilised societies around the world that the basic principle of specifying standards is that they indicate the performance expected by a product but not specify the technology to be used.

The reason is that specification of specific technologies ends up killing innovation and research for improvement in the future. On the other hand, when performance standards are specified, then manufacturers, researchers and operators compete with each other to provide the most efficient systems at the lowest costs for the same performance.

If we specify a single technology then we get locked into a single system, find it difficult to change when better products become available and get controlled by lobbies in favour of that single technology.

The Mashelkar report is just the first necessary — but not sufficient — step toward sensible policy-making. This is because dealing with technology and health in the public space is much more complex than we think.

If your stress test shows that your heart muscles have become weak, you can panic and demand a single magic pill to solve all your problems. But your doctor will only laugh at your demand.

Instead he will tell you to change your diet, do a set of prescribed exercises every day, alter your lifestyle, and take a set of medicines every day. In addition, he will also ask you to monitor your health status periodically and change your drugs accordingly.

Tackling traffic flow, vehicular pollution and road accidents require the same level of scientific expertise, inter- disciplinary cooperation and long-term attention as any other public health problem.

To solve problems of vehicular pollution we need to work from first principles. Quite obviously, the most long-lasting solution would be if people travelled less. Mixed land use helps.

Homes, businesses, hospitals, schools, entertainment areas, all need to be intermixed in localities. This is happening more by default than policy in our cities. Vendors going from house to house selling things reduce trips; vegetable shops, dhobis, mochis, paan shops, and tandoor stands in neighbourhoods eliminate thousands of scooter and car trips.

The second long-term solution is to encourage non-polluting modes of travel. There is only one — human-powered travel. We should be designing our streets so that walking, cycling and the use of rickshaws becomes safer and much more pleasant.

If it were so, many more people would be using these modes, especially younger people. City planning experience from Beijing in China to Portland in the US suggests this is true.

Street designs are available which show that segregated paths can be provided for bicycles and rickshaws on existing arterial roads in most cities. When you do this even the motorised traffic benefits, because friction reduces, flow becomes smoother and pollution reduces further.

If walking and bicycling were safer, more children would not need to go to school by bus or in their parents’ vehicles. Such policies would not only reduce pollution but also deaths and injuries due to traffic accidents.

The third strategy is to make public transport affordable, convenient and safe. No Indian city has improved bus transport in the last decade. Urban buses are still following designs of the 1950s.

The service is unreliable and unsafe especially for children, women and the elderly. However, recent developments in communication and computer technology have made it possible to optimise bus operations and provide customer-friendly services at very low cost.

Modern urban buses have low floors — only 350 mm high from the road. These buses make entry and exit much safer and faster. None of these options is being planned for our cities. The fourth strategy is to reduce the pollution from vehicles.

This is the only area where the government has taken some significant steps. Lead has been removed from petrol. This will conserve the health of millions of children. In Delhi, two-wheelers are sold petrol premixed with oil at pumps.

This prevents bad and excess oil use and reduces pollution. The diesel being sold in Delhi is less polluting than before. Cars being sold in Delhi now follow more stringent pollution norms.

Two-wheeler pollution standards in India are among the most stringent in the world and our two-wheeler manufacturers are doing a good job of meeting these standards by their R&D in this area.

However, much more needs to be done. Such measures must not be Delhi-centric. They must apply all over the country. After all, according to the Central Pollution Control Board, Delhi is not the most polluted city in India. There are many which are more polluted.

All policies, like drugs, have side-effects. Before prescribing a drug, you have to be certain that the side-effects are not worse than the disease. For example, our simple calculations show that all the effects of reducing pollution from buses would be nullified if only 10-15 per cent of bus users shift to using two-wheelers or cars.

This shift would also increase congestion. Greater use of two-wheelers would also increase injuries due to accidents. Therefore, before we make new laws that might increase the cost of buses, we have to make arrangements for cross-subsidy of public transport.

This follows from the polluter and user pays principle based on fair play. Since car users pollute the most, use the most road space and injure more people per person transported, they must pay for their comfort that harms others.

Two-wheeler users come next and bus users a low third. A pollution and road tax paid by private vehicle users could help pay for better buses so that we avoid a migration from buses to two-wheelers and cars.

It is quite clear that cleaner air will come at a price, and only if we have well-thought-out long-term policies. The future committees which deal with these issues would be well advised to consider all the complex issues, consider the side-effects and perform cost effectiveness studies before issuing edicts. If we don’t do this, the air will not be cleaner and a lot of people will be affected adversely.

(The author is a professor for transportation and safety at IIT, New Delhi)
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