Hold Your Breath

Over the past decade, New Delhi has rapidly become one of the most polluted cities in the world with the Indian Medical Association declaring a public health emergency. To put the severity of the problem into simple numbers; air quality levels fourth months ago were equivalent to approximately smoking 50 cigarettes daily. Transportation was severely affected while schools across the city were shut for three days. Fine pollutants - PM 2.5 (particulate matter) levels, reached an alarming level of 710 micrograms per cubic metre,  more than 11 times the WHO safe limit. Dangerous carcinogenic chemicals such as lead, arsenic and mercury are categorised as PM 2.5. Lung cancer and asthmatic attacks are serious long-term health consequences of being exposed to such high pollution levels. Air quality modelling studies further highlighted that exposure to such pollution levels can reduce life expectancy by six years in the city (Ghude et al., 2016).

Delhi air pollution compared to other cities (The Guardian, 2017)

  Examining the reasons behind the alarming pollution levels in New Delhi reveal multiple factors simultaneously degrading air quality. Vehicular and industrial emissions, crop-residue burning and waste incineration are the major sources. The problem is exacerbated in winter when slow winds and cooler temperatures trap pollutants closer to ground (Safi, 2017). The source of these emissions are unevenly spread across state borders (neighbouring states Haryana and Uttar Pradesh) but the effects are particularly concentrated in New Delhi. Thus, state boundaries pose political challenges in coordinating and implementing policies.

In addressing these problems, short-sightedness has underpinned the government’s outlook. Authorities introduced car rationingas the central policy. Cars with even and odd number plates were allowed on roads on alternate days. Environmental observers have sternly criticised the policy as a “tokenistic” effort- one that fails to grasp the complex roots of the problem as vehicular emissions are only one part of the problem. Another short-term measure the local government invested in was an anti-smog gun, designed to flush out pollutants by injecting water droplets at high speed. While this technology is claimed to target 95% pollutants,it further papers over the cracks and stops short of addressing even one of the principal causes of the crisis. Banning firecrackers during the popular festival of Diwali was another measure that contributed little to improving air quality.

The fundamental problem is one of market failure, where the negative externalities of pollution are manifested complexly through both production and consumption of goods. Viewing this problem through a strictly theoretical lens points towards the need for multitudinal policy measures. And that is exactly where the critical challenge lies: achieving the right balance of policy measures. In targeting vehicular emissions, there are two policies that should be undertaken simultaneously: a) A Pigouvian tax on diesel cars and b) increased investment in public transportation. 

A Pigouvian tax is a tax on any market activity that generates negative externalities. Private and commercial vehicle ownership is exponentially escalating in New Delhi and diesel is a major contributor to air pollution in the city. While a fuel tax would incentivise a shift towards cleaner fuels or decreased demand for automobiles and in the long-term reduce vehicular emissions, public support is a major obstacle in implementing this policy. In an emerging economy like India, with a vast lower-middle and middle class population that is projected to grow exponentially over the next few decades, a diesel tax will be met with significant public disagreement. Diesel vehicles are the most economical automobile option for most people and importantly, a symbol of financial success and societal status. In essence, this tax would be up against an entrenched socio-cultural outlook.  Additionally, a fuel tax of this nature would also hit the automobile industry which is a rapidly growing manufacturing sector in India and employs millions of workers. A Pigouvian tax on diesel vehicles thus would have to be complemented with other measures such as subsidies towards cleaner fuel vehicles and major investments in expanding public transportation. The Delhi Metro which has been developed over the past decade is an important step towards boosting public transportation but with over 20 million people in New Delhi, further projects are needed to signal a mass shift away from private transport. A mass public informational and educational campaign on air pollution can further support these policy initiatives. In conjunction with the above proposed measures, fast tracking the proposed 2020 shift to Euro BS (Bharat Stage) VI emission limits can further serve to curb air pollution (Amann et al., 2017). India only recently implemented Euro IV emission standards and the process of upgrading to cleaner emissions standards earlier is called for at least in New Delhi. 

Perhaps what is more urgently required is an inter-state policy, banning crop-residue burning and open fires (for waste disposal). This has been earmarked as a priority for future action by researchers (Amann et al., 2017). New Delhi is surrounded by primarily agrarian and industrial states Haryana and Uttar Pradesh where agricultural and waste incineration are widespread. Illegalising crop-residue burning and waste incineration require extensive financial resources dedicated towards surveillance, enforcement and compliance. This will only be possible through effective policy coordination between New Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. However, inter-state judicial affairs in India are mired in bureaucracy, inefficiency and a considerable lag time is to be expected in implementing such an inter-state enforcement-centric policy. Such ground-level realities pose an obstacle towards implementing policies. 

It is evident that New Delhi needs a hybrid policy instrument to effectively curb pollution. Despite the evident political and economic challenges in implementing these measures, existing policies have failed to improve the city’s air quality. Implementing a fuel tax coupled with investments in public transportation and upgrading fuel emission standards are important tools to curb vehicular emissions. In addition, the central government must facilitate coordination between the capital and surrounding states to effectively ban crop-residue burning and waste incineration. The clock is ticking for the government, as 20 million citizens continue to hold their breath.  

About the author: 
Shashank Manjunath is a Master's student of Sustainable Development and Environmental Economics with keen interests in renewable energy, environmental policy and geopolitics. 

Amann, M., Purohit, P., Bhanarkar, A., Bertok, I., Borken-Kleefeld, J., Cofala, J., Heyes, C., Kiesewetter, G., Klimont, Z., Liu, J., Majumdar, D., Nguyen, B., Rafaj, P., Rao, P., Sander, R., Schöpp, W., Srivastava, A. and Vardhan, B. (2017). Managing future air quality in megacities: A case study for Delhi. Atmospheric Environment, 161, pp.99-111.

BBC News. (2017). Delhi smog car rota angers residents. [online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-41939015 [Accessed 9 Apr. 2018].

France-Presse, A. (2017). India unveils anti-smog cannon in fight against Delhi pollution. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/21/india-unveils-anti-smog-cannon-in-fight-against-delhi-pollution [Accessed 9 Apr. 2018].

Ghude, S., Chate, D., Jena, C., Beig, G., Kumar, R., Barth, M., Pfister, G., Fadnavis, S. and Pithani, P. (2016). Premature mortality in India due to PM2.5 and ozone exposure. Geophysical Research Letters, 43(9), pp.4650-4658.

Safi, M. (2017). Delhi doctors declare pollution emergency as smog chokes city. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/07/delhi-india-declares-pollution-emergency-as-smog-chokes-city [Accessed 9 Apr. 2018]


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