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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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