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Delhi: Pollution levels rising again
Pollution levels in Delhi are up. The gains that accrued from the CNG programme have been lost. All the options available under the first generation re-forms have been exhausted. The increasing market-share of diesel cars makes it only worse.
DELHI IS IN danger of losing the gains of its CNG programme as pollution levels are once again creeping towards the pre-2000 level. A recent analysis of air quality data in Delhi carried out by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) finds that pollution levels are on the upswing again after being under control for a few years.
Last winter, for the first time, pollution levels increased and this year pollution levels are already almost as high as the levels that obtained in the pre-CNG days. CSE Director Sunita Narain cautioned that tough measures are needed to control the growing air pollution and the said measures should be initiated fast. Otherwise, she warned, Delhi would find itself in the choked and toxic haze of the pre-CNG days, when diesel-driven buses and autos had made it one of the most polluted cities on earth.
In 2002, when the CNG programme was initiated in the capital, the annual average levels of reparable suspended particulate matter (RSPM, or PM10) in residential areas stood at 143 microgram per cubic metre. They dropped to 115 microgram per cubic metre by 2005. An upward swing has been noticed since 2006 when the annual average levels jumped back to 136 microgram per cubic metre. The monthly average levels of RSPM in the winter of 2006-07 were as high as 350 microgram per cubic metre. The evils can even be higher this winter. This year, the daily levels of even finer particulates {smaller than 2.5-microns (PM2.5)}, have already reached 240 microgram per cubic metre in end-October.
Studies in US show that an increase of only 10 microgram per cubic metre of PM2.5 is associated with significant increase in health risks. High exposure to PM2.5 is known to lead to increased hospitalisation for asthma, lung diseases, chronic bronchitis and heart damage. Long-term exposure can cause lung cancer. Levels of nitrogen oxides (NOx) have been rising in the city to dangerous levels, which is a clear sign of pollution from vehicles.
First generation reforms have exhausted options during the past five years and the city has done all it can to reduce pollution. It has prescribed advanced emission norms for vehicles, strengthened its ‘pollution under control’ system with new equipment, capped the number of its auto rickshaws, converted buses to the CNG mode, mandated that new light commercial vehicles be run on CNG and restricted commercial vehicles from entering the city. But in spite of all these actions, pollution levels are on the rise. Sunita Narain said that the second generation reforms needed to combat air pollution will need to address new challenges – the exponential growth of private vehicles and in particular, diesel vehicles in the city. Private vehicles take up space and pollute as well. Delhi has more than four million registered vehicles. Currently, the city adds 963 new personal vehicles each day to its roads. This is almost double the addition one witnessed in the pre-CNG days.
Little planning has gone into the public transport system and the connectivity between the growing cities of the National Capital Region. It is no wonder then that the National Highway 8, the Delhi - Gurgaon road which was designed for a traffic volume of 160,000 vehicles by 2015, already has 130,000 cars fighting for space.
The Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA), in its recent report, has noted that bus numbers in the city do not even add up to the target of 10,000 set by the Supreme Court way back in July 1998. Clearly, a massive initiative to improve public transport is needed along with steps to restrain the growth of private vehicles.
According to the Society for Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), the market - share of diesel cars has already increased to over 30% in the last 18 months. The share of diesel cars is expected to be 50% of all car sales by 2010. This growth in personal diesel vehicle numbers will undo all the efforts directed at reducing pollution by phasing out diesel buses and converting them to CNG. Says Anumita Roychoudhury, head of CSE’s air pollution campaign, “Even at a very conservative estimate, the total number of diesel cars presently in Delhi is equivalent to adding particulate emissions from nearly 30,000 diesel buses.” Diesel vehicles are known to emit more smoke, particles and NOx than their petrol counterparts. According to WHO and other international regulatory and scientific agencies, diesel particulates are carcinogenic. Even the so-called ‘clean’ diesel running on fuel with 350 ppm of sulphur, allows higher limits for NOx and particulate emissions compared to petrol cars.
The future is in our hands. At this rate, every winter will turn back the pollution clock. With each passing year, asthma and other respiratory diseases will only increase. If Delhi does not want to wheeze, choke and sneeze, it must act and that too, immediately. Its experiment with CNG shows that it can make a difference. 
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