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Each year, as Diwali approaches, a conversation on air quality begins to take a higher share of our public discourse. In Delhi, seasonal pollutants contributed by the bursting of crackers, burning of crop residue and heating of twigs to fight the cold get added to year-round contributions from vehicular pollution, construction dust and local industries. The result: the capital’s air quality reaches dangerous proportions, leading to the implementation of some emergency measures, which possibly help ease the situation briefly. But the problem recurs each winter. It’s time for more permanent solutions to be thought of, instead of an annual exercise in crisis management.

The causes of air pollution are many. Some contribute pollutants round the year, whereas others are seasonal. Crop stubble burning in neighbouring states, open fires to meet the heating needs of the poor and Diwali fire crackers are seasonal contributors, while construction dust, polluting industries and transport vehicles contribute to pollution throughout the year. Common sense would tell us that a good air-quality action plan would look at the year-round contributors and find ways of dealing with them. This would not just bring down the base level of emissions, but also create much-needed space for some of the seasonal peaking that may be inevitable.

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It is evident that neither the contributors of air pollution nor the effects of poor air quality are limited to the city’s boundaries. The adverse health impacts are felt beyond the borders of Delhi, just as some of the contributions come from various states. Therefore, a regional approach to mitigate air pollution is likely to be more useful than a purely city-based one. It is in this context that the central government has set up a Commission for Air Quality Management, whose jurisdiction is regional.

Several source apportionment studies in the past few years (such as CPCB 2010; IIT Kanpur 2016; and TERI 2018) have shown that vehicular exhaust emissions account for as much as 9% to 38% of PM2.5 emissions. Transport, therefore, is a significant year-round contributor. Reducing emissions in the transport sector will reduce our base pollution load and help make seasonal spikes less damaging.

We need a comprehensive multi-year plan to reduce emissions from the transport sector. It should comprise a four-pronged approach that includes: 1) a massive improvement in public bus services; 2) deployment of clean technologies; 3) infrastructure upgrades for non-motorized modes of conveyance; and 4) a plan to reduce travel demand.

Public bus services must move away from the traditional approach of a single public agency providing all services to one where a public agency prepares plans and procures services from private operators on structured contracts. Innovative premium services that are attractive enough to personal motor- vehicle owners are needed. Special services to the airport, railway stations, employment hubs and local circulators will help bring down the extent of personal motor-vehicle use. Institutional reforms are required that let us leverage the private sector.

With regard to clean technologies, electric mobility is a rapidly growing choice around the world and needs to be taken forward aggressively. A recent challenge was taken up that involved the procurement of 5,450 electric buses after an analysis of aggregate demand across cities showed that electric buses can be significantly cheaper than diesel/CNG options. This approach should be stepped up.

A shift to non-motorized modes needs safer infrastructure for cycling and walking. Developing pedestrian and bicycle masterplans to ensure that walking and cycling in urban spaces become safe and pleasant is essential. This could be an important mode of travel, especially since average trip lengths in Delhi are not very high.

Reducing travel demand itself can be achieved by reducing the average number of trips that people make and also cutting down the length of such trips. Improving online delivery of public services will help reduce trip frequency, while mixed land-use planning helps reduce trip lengths. Policies and support infrastructure that let people work from home or shop online are ways of reducing the number of trips that have to be made. Fortunately, covid has demonstrated that working from home is possible and going to office every day is no longer a necessity.

Further, new areas coming up in the city should be planned in such a manner that commercial and residential areas are co-located to shorten average trip lengths.

In short, many actions are possible to reduce pollution from transport systems in the National Capital Region. However, they need a focused, comprehensive, systematic and multi-year effort. To that end, setting up a Commission on Air Quality Management has been a welcome step.

One hopes that the commission will develop a scientific plan with a long-term vision, and also be adequately resourced and empowered to implement it. Otherwise, concerns about safe breathing will remain and people will shun Delhi for healthier lives.

These are the authors’ personal views.

Anil Baijal & O.P. Agarwal are, respectively, former Lieutenant Governor of Delhi and senior advisor, WRI India.

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