Is it time to rethink NGT’s ban on diesel vehicles in Delhi with a more holistic approach?


News about the National Green Tribunal (NGT) directing the Delhi RTO to de-register, with immediate effect, all diesel vehicles that are more than ten-years old (some newspapers say that the ban is for 15-year-old vehicles) naturally hogged the headlines.

The Regional Transport Office (RTO), after completing the de-registration, is to issue a public notice and the supply list of such vehicles to the Delhi Traffic Police, which will act as already directed by the tribunal.

These orders were passed after the Delhi Police said they had been making efforts since last year (post similar NGT orders) but that they hadn’t made much headway – many challans were issued, fines were levied, and around 3,000 vehicles were impounded, but the vehicles resurfaced again.

NGT has also directed Ministry of Heavy Industries to: file an affidavit giving the status of electric and hybrid vehicles in the country; intimate benefits being considered for those who wish to dispose old vehicles, and write a letter to chief secretaries of all the states, within one week in this regard.
Diesel vehicles. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

The NGT also slammed the Delhi government over incidents of waste burning and dust pollution, asking the government and other concerned authorities to create awareness about the air pollution caused by vehicular emissions and burning of municipal solid waste, and to issue advertisements on the lines of the odd-even scheme.

This bit, about “advertisements on the lines of the odd-even scheme”, will be lapped up by the Delhi government because it will provide an opportunity to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to paste his photograph on such posters in every nook and corner of the capital – Rs 526 crore have been spent on self aggrandisement notwithstanding.

As to the police issuing challans, levying fines, impounding 3,000 vehicles; one wonders if even a single government vehicle of the thousands plying in Delhi were involved – obviously not, but should the NGT have posed the question?

More significantly, a study conducted in 2010 broke the popular belief that vehicles are the major source of Particulate Matter (PM) air pollution, concluding that instead industrial emissions and road dust were the prominent causes for pollution.

Not only was this reported then in the media, it was also significantly cited by an environment ministry source, who said, “Despite the large fleet of vehicles in Delhi, the share (of pollution) is less due to presence of other significant sources such as power plants, road dust re-suspension,” adding that the said report was vetted by air pollution experts in Europe and United States. So why has the NGT not given any direction regarding the industry and power plants – and only issued directions to the Ministry of Heavy Industries, relating to electric and hybrid vehicles?

As to the much trumpeted odd-even scheme, an IIT Kanpur study has established that the main contributors for PM 10 and PM 2.5 are trucks and two-wheelers – both common in winters and summers. According to the report, four top contributors of PM 10 during summer are road dust, concrete batching plants, industrial point sources and vehicles; for PM 2.5 dust, vehicles, domestic fuel burning and industrial pollution, and other sources of pollution in summer include coal and fly ash (37-26 percent), road dust (26-27 percent), secondary particles (10-15 percent), biomass burning (7-12 percent), vehicles (6-9 percent) and MSW burning (8-7 percent).

What the NGT should have considered is that the majority of this six to eight percent vehicle pollution in Delhi is because of trucks and two-wheelers. In the two odd-even programs run by Delhi government so far, there have been no curbs on two-wheelers because of vote-bank politics, and the restrictions were only marginal imposed on trucks, over and above the plying times normally predicted.

It is very surprisingly that the NGT has not questioned the Delhi government about this. Delhi generates 10,000 tons of municipal solid waste daily, much of which is eventually burned, adding to pollution in the air; in addition to the already massive pollution added by construction activity.

Merely educating people through billboards can hardly suffice. So, could the NGT have not asked the Delhi government to produce immediate, mid-term and long-term plans on how this problem could be handled?

As per a recent WHO report, India has the dubious distinction of having half the world’s 20 most polluted cities, with Delhi occupying number 11 in the world. But then Gwalior, Allahabad, Patna and Raipur are worse off, occupying number two, three, six and seven respectively.

Of the balance, Ludhiana, Kanpur, Khanna, Firozabad and Lucknow are at number 12, 15, 16, 17 and 18 respectively. Considering these facts, it appears strange that the NGT, being a national and not regional organisation, on one hand is issuing orders for an immediate ban on the said diesel vehicles in Delhi, but on the other is content in ordering the Ministry of Heavy Industries to write a letter to chief secretaries of all States about hybrid and electric vehicles alone as a measure to curb pollution on the national scale.

Ordering the Delhi government to keep a check on all above 10-year-old diesel vehicles entering Delhi also appears to be impractical. Take just the Jaipur-Delhi Highway for example, on which as per one assessment, some 11,000 vehicles are being added almost every month. How are such checks on entry points of Delhi possible when public pressure because of excessive waiting time at toll gates has resulted in removal of some tolls while public anger is on display at others?

According to the Indian Council of Medical Research’s (ICMR), lung cancer is the most common cancer among men in Delhi (10 percent), followed by tongue cancer (6.8 percent) and larynx cancer (5.9 percent). In case of women, it is breast, ovary and cervix cancer.

In this context, a study that was conducted by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) found that buses that run on CNG emit nano-carbon particles that cause cancer. CSIR took the findings seriously, owing to the health hazard it poses to humans, and alerted the central government.

Speaking at the Global Green Energy Conclave in Delhi, the then Director General CSIR, Dr MO Garg (now Director of CSIR-Indian Institute of Petroleum, Dehradun), had stated, “We did a study with a professor of Alberta University, who had developed a device to measure and analyse particles emitted by vehicles. We installed this machine on the exhaust of a natural gas-run DTC buses in Delhi. Can you imagine that we found nanocarbon particles coming out of from natural gas combustion. These particles are moving around in the atmosphere and going straight into your lungs through your nose. It then enters into your blood through membranes.”

According to Garg, “These nanoparticles are rich in polynuclear aromatic, having huge surface area. They are also carcinogenic. I have been telling the government that we need to look at this situation more seriously. Imagine what will be its effect when all the commercial vehicles, such as buses, run on natural gas in Delhi. You can see smoke coming out from diesel engine and tell that it is dangerous. But, nanocarbon particles coming out from vehicles are not visible but something that we need to look at.”

Getting back to the NGT order, media says that 900 of 1,200 diesel ambulances, 70 percent of goods vehicles and 90 percent of chartered buses in Delhi will be affected by the ban. Ironically, there are plenty of 3-5 year old commercial vehicles that produce 20 times more pollution. And what about old cars that clear the pollution test?

Obviously the city can’t be brought to a standstill overnight and trucks will continue to move goods anyway. The fleet of government owned old diesel Ambassadors won’t vanish overnight either. As for the balance of the overall 2.8 lakh diesel cars in Delhi (number given in media), the affluent will not be affected, given that the little used cars are overflowing in the second hand car markets.

The real suckers will be the elderly, who live on limited sustenance and own a diesel car older than ten years, which may be well maintained otherwise. Of course the car sales of petrol vehicles will soar, and the police will rake in plenty money through challans. But does the government have any answer why, at the time of buying the cars, the public was charged road tax for 15 years and the RC was also issued for 15 years? Will the government refund road tax for these five years, if the vehicle older than 10 years is to be deregistered?

Clearly, there is a need to look at the issue of pollution more holistically. The report about CNG causing cancer must be taken seriously. Given that we cannot dispense with CNG altogether, perhaps it would be prudent to go for a balanced mix of petrol, diesel and CNG. Just singling out diesel cars would make little difference to pollution levels.

In fact, NGT should also seriously examine the odd-even scheme, which reduces traffic congestion with negligible pollution reduction, irrespective of what figures are publicised. The NGT should monitor the next odd-even program in Delhi, with the help of an IIT. While examining the other causes of pollution and countermeasures, it is essential to seriously look at the public transportation system and review the Delhi government’s announcement of putting 10,000 CNG buses on the road, unless we want to reduce the population through cancer.

In US, most trucks, especially up to certain capacity, are run on petrol. Can this be taken up at the national level on a fast track basis under the Make in India scheme? Even in the case of diesel cars in Delhi, can we look at a program replacing the engines, giving subsidy to the elderly? And exactly where is the police going to dump the 2.8 million impounded vehicles anyway?