Discussing environmental impact due to air pollution by vehicular emissions
India is the world’s fastest-growing economy with the highest population and demographic dividend, with the goal to reach the five-trillion-dollar mark over the next few years. But according to the World Bank, the country lost over 8.5 percent of its GDP in 2013 due to air pollution (Business Standard 2016). The latest research from the Indian Statistical Institute shows that reducing pollution would help the country gain billions (Al Jazeera News 2019). Hence in order to achieve the five-trillion mark, considerable resources have to be allocated towards tackling air pollution. According to the State of Global Air 2019 estimates, over 1.2 million Indians died early due to exposure to unsafe air in 2017 – making air pollution the third-highest cause of death among all health risks, ranking just above smoking (Kapil 2019).
With increasing working population and migration, urbanisation is only set to increase. This increase will be met with a corresponding increase in the market demand cycle for transportation; however, keeping Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in mind, achieving sustainable transportation faces issues in the present context. According to CEIC, India’s Motor Vehicles sales has an average growth of 9.7 %. There was an all-time high of 63.6 % in Dec 2009 and a record low of -58.8 % in Mar 2020. Besides the Mobility sector, urban transportation in general is plagued with regulatory problems majorly related to pollution, land use, public transport adequacy.
Air pollution can be seen as a simple looking complex problem. To understand the inter-linked consequential nature of urban transport, a causal loop diagram was made using all possible variables that are affected by it. It can be seen that environmental impact cannot be discussed in isolation and has to be taken along with other contributing factors like health impacts and institutional issues. Also, within the environmental impact, the effects of individual variables cannot be studied in silo.
As per the carbon footprint of India, TERI reports that the transport sector – comprised of road transport, aviation, navigation, and railways – accounted for 142.04 million tons of CO2eq emissions, i.e., 7.5% of the total GHG emissions in the country in the year 2007. Of this, road transport alone accounted for 87% of the total transport emissions (TERI ICAMP 2014). These have drastic environmental impact in terms of double-digit crop losses, threats to food security, climate change and health of the citizens. A study by Jennifer Burney and Veerbhadran Ramanathanhan showed that air pollution caused a third of loss in wheat yields and one-fifths of loss in rice yields in India (Andrei 2014). It might not be an exaggeration to say that the vehicle we are driving is impacting what’s on our plate and what we are eating. Considering this, it becomes all the more important that regulations in the transport and environment sector, in general, and pollution sector, in particular, are clearly defined and efficiently implemented.
Existing Regulatory Framework: Issues and Solutions
It’s quite ironic that the urban transport sector which exerts overarching effects doesn’t have a single regulatory authority – rather, it is governed and impacted by various regulatory authorities and policies. Speaking specifically about the regulation framework for pollution, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and the State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs) are the biggest pollution regulators of the country. The International Council on Clean Transportation while critically assessing the regulations of transport policies in India, notes,
“Environment Act, 1986 specifically mentions The Central Pollution Control Board and State Pollution Control Board’s roles in setting environmental standards, it is ultimately the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) that is responsible for enforcing compliance with India’s vehicular emission standards. This is because the MoRTH is responsible for enforcing the Motor Vehicles Act, 1989, which specifically assigns the central government the responsibility of regulating vehicle emission standards. While the MoRTH sets norms for in-use emission standards, individual states and municipalities are responsible for enforcing them. Another diversion of responsibility is with the national agencies that conduct type approval and COP testing. These agencies are under the management of other ministries rather than the MoRTH. For example, two such agencies, the Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI) and the International Centre for Automotive Technology (ICAT), the primary passenger vehicle testing agencies, are managed by the Ministry of Heavy Industries & Public Enterprises (MoHIPE).” (ICCT and Diesel net)
This highlights the levels in division of responsibilities which is susceptible to regulatory confusion, delay, and eventually, failure. From another instance of Bengaluru, to quote the level of multiplicity of regulators, has a Department of Environment and Forests (headed by a Minister), a regional office of MoEF, a zonal office of the Central Pollution Control Board, headquarter and regional offices of the Karnataka SPCB, the Karnataka State’s Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) and Expert Appraisal Committee (SEAC), office of the Karnataka State Coastal Zone Management Authority, office of the Karnataka Forest Department.
Delhi has been identified among the most polluted cities of the world having particulate matter twenty times to that of WHO prescribed standards. Delhi breathes the most poisonous air during the months of winter. Even though stubble burning is a major contributing factor, experts have found that vehicular emissions is a continual contributor to this ordeal. In fact, according to the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research (SAFAR) study of 2018, vehicles in Delhi are responsible for 62.5 percent of NOx load from all sources; the 2018 TERI ARAI study puts the figure at 81 percent (CSE 2019). According to the state’s economic survey of 2018-19, the growth rate of vehicles in Delhi during 2017-18 was recorded at 5.81%. The highest growth of vehicles during the period was observed in other passenger vehicles at 27.56% during 2017-18. The pro-active role of the Supreme Court came to Delhi’s rescue such that the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA), came up with a Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) to control severe pollution in the NCR. GRAP was rolled out last year only as a reactionary approach to the issue. The regulatory agencies were criticised on their lax implementation and seriousness. Professor Vikram Soni, a physicist at JNU, has termed the state’s air emergency a regulatory issue and not a planning issue. The key regulatory takeaway from Delhi’s case is that failure at the end of regulatory governance can topple the planning governance
Sectoral Expert’s views
These may seem as issues related to implementation aspects of the regulatory bodies, but sectoral expert Prof M.K. Ramesh during a consultation pointed out the issues with the prescriptions of the regulations like the formulation of policies and laws. Take an example of pollution standards which came into existence only after judicial intervention. We can also see in the case of Delhi’s pollution.
Institutional issues like composition and structure of these regulatory boards have often been discussed. Lack of diversity on board, delays in recruitment, political interference are some of the many issues. Prof M.K. Ramesh also highlighted the point that these issues are rooted in political interference and this takes us back to classical readings on regulatory bodies that they can never be devoid of political influence as they are created by them. For the government, the pollution board is just a department under one ministry. Our approach to tackle issues has majorly been reactionary and not precautionary, which gets reflected in the gaps between objectives and outcomes of the chosen approach.
We can conclude that we need a second-generation of reforms for environmental sustainability in the transport sector. Possible solutions like the expansion of e-vehicles with economic incentives are being explored by various states like Delhi and Karnataka. But, addressing institutional issues is of utmost priority before going into specific solutions. It is suggested that multiplicity of laws and regulatory bodies should be reduced, along with removal of archaic laws to streamline regulatory procedures. In the reform process, there’s certainly an opportunity of fixing a national regulator like an independent Urban Mobility regulator, which will consolidate all clearances like environment, forests, wildlife and coastal so that the project’s impact is fully understood. It has to be supplemented by a sustainable urban mobility policy. This particular reform will contribute immensely to the environment sustainability aspect of the sector. But this change must require the active-participation of all stakeholders, especially the citizens so we come down to the question- “How to bring a desired change?” We need to take into account the sociological and political economy aspect of the country for effective changes and for this, the given cycle can be a source of reference.
We have understood that various factors impact and are being impacted by urban transport, so building on the non-linear consequential nature of this sector is the key to an efficient streamlined regulatory solution. We should take a cue from China’s strategy – it puts air pollution as part of the national planning process and not part of a mere environmental agenda. And, more so to say an economic agenda. Demanding clean air doesn’t necessarily lead to required actions that will lead to cleaner air like cleaner fuels or lesser personal vehicles. Nonetheless, it requires transition in everything we do, from what we drive to how we drive. With the COVID outbreak, use of public transport will be limited to a certain section of society and will increase the use of private vehicles for the other section. In such unpreceded times, the onus lies on the regulators to take into account both the factors. Further, actions that produce emissions are deeply embedded in our activities that go back to traditions and culture, however, sustained efforts with a multi-sectoral strategy can catalyse the solutions to this complex problem.
(Ravneet Kaur is pursuing her Master’s in Public Policy at NLSIU. Having graduated with a B.Tech in Biotechnology, she has developed a keen aptitude for intersectional research on agriculture, environment, and nutrition. Her area of interest lies in the field of Public health, IPR, and livelihoods. On any given morning you’ll find Ravneet being the loud Punjabi girl that she is, however her evenings are spent calmly sipping tea and petting the dogs near chetta.
To get in touch or collaborate, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org)
 He is a senior professor at NLSIU with expertise on matters like International Law, Environmental Law, and Human Rights Law. He has published over 30 articles and contributed chapters to five books as well. Can be referred at https://www.ceicdata.com/en/indicator/india/motor-vehicles-sales-growth
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