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On offer: Cost-effective measures to rid India of air pollution

Delhi has the dubious distinction of being the world’s most polluted city. In fact, the entire country, including the rural areas, is heavily polluted as anyone who has taken a flight in India knows.Why have matters been allowed to reach this state?

ht view Updated: Feb 05, 2015 00:24 IST
air pollution,pollution in Delhi,Euro-III

Delhi has the dubious distinction of being the world’s most polluted city. In fact, the entire country, including the rural areas, is heavily polluted as anyone who has taken a flight in India knows. The fog that engulfs north India in winter is largely a consequence of the smoke particles in the air on which water condenses easily. Why have matters been allowed to reach this state? One reason is that people do not realise how cheap it is to get rid of much of the air pollution that plagues us.

In November, the fields of north-western India are set on fire to burn the loose stalks of the harvested rice crop that are left behind by combine harvesting machines. The pollution from these fires is so great that the chief ministers of Haryana and Punjab have appealed to farmers not to burn the residue, and some district magistrates have tried to ban burning. These measures have had little effect because most farmers don’t have an alternative method to remove the residue.

A machine called ‘Happy Seeder’ was introduced a few years ago and it solves this problem. It can plant wheat seeds through the loose residue without getting clogged. Retaining the residue rather than burning it helps to preserve soil moisture and nutrients. We now need a major extension effort and subsidy to speed up the adoption of the machines. Once an alternative to burning is available, the bans on burning can be enforced.

Emissions from trucks and cars are another huge source of particulate emissions that can be largely eliminated economically. The main expense required to do this is to reduce the sulphur content of diesel and petrol from the current levels of 50-350 parts per million down to less than 10 parts per million. This needs investment in improvements in oil refineries. The International Council for Clean Transportation (ICCT) has studied the cost of these investments to produce ultra-low-sulphur-fuel and concluded that they can be covered by raising fuel prices by just 50 paise/litre.

The second investment that is needed to reduce transport emissions by over 90% is to tighten standards for new vehicles from the current Euro-IV (for metro cities) or Euro-III for the rest of India to Euro-VI and VII. These would require all new vehicles to be fitted with the latest emission control technologies. For example, trucks and buses need to be fitted with diesel particle traps to capture particles in the exhaust. These do not work properly if the sulphur content of fuel is high. The ICCT study finds that these improvements would raise the price of new vehicles by 3-5%. This is not negligible but it would be paid by the richest and is a modest price to pay for bringing emissions down to developed country levels.

A third major source of particle emissions is from households that use firewood, dung and waste for cooking and heating. For most households, gas is too expensive. Improved biomass ‘chulhas’ remain unpopular and in any case, would reduce emissions only slightly. However, electric induction stoves now cost as little as Rs 1,500 and are being adopted in cities as a cheaper alternative to gas. Promotion of these stoves in rural areas can reduce the problem of pollution from cooking fires. Initially, we may expect rural households to use them only for small tasks like making tea, for which it is too inconvenient to start up a wood fire. Over time, we may expect usage to increase. Of course, even with public health messages explaining the health effects of pollution, extension efforts, and subsidies, electric appliances will spread only in the northwestern and southern states that have reasonably reliable rural power supply.

E Somanathan is programme director, Centre for Research on the Economics of Climate, Food, Energy and Environment, Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Feb 05, 2015 00:18 IST