Saturday, September 8, 2001
M A I N   F E A T U R E

The cost
of chaos

Chandigarh has the highest per capita ownership of vehicles in the country. It also has the highest percentage of female drivers. Both these facts mean that Chandigarh may well be on its way to becoming a congested and polluted city like its neighbours Ludhiana and Delhi. Is CNG the solution to all our traffic woes or is a more far-sighted approach needed? Taru Bahl weaves her way past blocked arguments on safe vehicular fuels and honking clean air lobbyists to analyse ways to tackle snarl-ups on our roads.

YOU don’t have to be a Mario Miranda or an RK Laxman to caricature 21st century traffic chaos. You also don’t have to be an unenviable resident of Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta or Chennai to experience metro madness at its creative best. The only thing you have to do is to look at the disorganised manner in which our cities are planned, expanded and then demolished! Add to it the growing number of vehicles on the roads — often mistaken as visible signs of economic prosperity — and the chaos is complete.


There is no method, only madness. You can count on getting late for your appointments, missing trains and flights, being a victim of road rage, getting fleeced by unscrupulous vehicle operators and last, but not the least, getting fed on a forced diet of newspaper reports that might today dwell on the use of CNG, tomorrow debate about the use of diesel as opposed to petrol and the day after talk about who received how many kickbacks on MRTS. The idea is to choke the hapless Indian commuter with all possible emissions and pollutants. It not only renders you incapable of demanding your fair share of clean air but also limit your options of having access to a transportation system which is safe, reliable, economical, fast and convenient.

With the 20th century witnessing a rapid increase in urban inhabitants — from a mere 8 per cent in 1900, the world population living in urban settlements shot up by a whopping 50 per cent in 2000 — megacities have sprouted all over the world to accommodate these swelling numbers. With a high concentration in the Asian region, mostly in fund-starved developing countries, there is an urgent need to implement timely, relevant and cost-effective measures which alone can keep these megacities from collapsing. The worst-case scenarios are mostly located in India and, possibly, you are living in one of them.

We can, however, draw lessons from the rest of the world. But we cannot afford to experiment, make mistakes or go in for half-baked short-term alternatives. As a poor, bursting-with-people-and-vehicles-at-its-seams nation, we have to make sure our decisions are sustainable. Each city/region/country has to find indigenous solutions to its unique and specific problems. The right transport policy influences growth of urban areas and reduces infrastructure costs and services by making optimal use of existing resources. Inexpensive access to income-generating opportunities helps the poor on their way up the economic ladder. Those confined to walking or cycling will have more restrictive opportunities for employment. In most large cities, job opportunities increase because public transport services are affordable.

The solution to traffic congestion is not to have more roads but to use the existing facilities optimally and effectively. The World Bank report on Urban Transport in Asia — an Operational Agenda for the 1990s— states:"In Asia,Singapore represents an example of an efficient urban transport system while Bangkok is one of the least efficient and congested cities in the world." Singapore was one of Asia’s most polluted cities in the world three decades ago and has managed to achieve pollution levels which are below WHO and US Environmental Protection Agency air quality standards. Its citizens, who are breathing air which is amongst the cleanest in the world, have joined the state in working towards reducing pollution levels. Even the richest of the Singaporeans walk, cycle or bus it to work in addition to abiding by state directives on car ownership, parking laws, bans and taxation policies. Not a single pollutant has exceeded the annual average level of 60 microgramme per cum during this period (the 1990s). This target may seem difficult to achieve in India where pm 10 levels reach as high as 820 microgramme units in New Delhi alone. However, it mustn’t be forgotten that Singapore too achieved the impossible by imposing simple but firm restrictions on owning and using cars; and by drastically improving transit systems and promoting pedestrian traffic and non-motorised transport.

A city like Delhi will become unsustainable if dependence on cars is not reduced. Vehicles in the capital are increasing annually by almost 8 per cent. Between 1990 and 1998, the number of vehicles increased by 85.21 per cent and today a staggering 3 million run on the Capital’s roads. Delhi with 1 per cent of India’s population has 10 per cent of the total vehicles registered in the country. Singapore’s public transport system, which includes a series of radial and circumferential MRT and light rail lines with subcentre mode transport systems, caters to 75 per cent of its travel demand. Nearly 65 per cent of the passengers walk to and from MRT stations since these connect beautifully to commercial and residential areas. Their transport policy has forced people to opt for public transport and not seek private ownership of cars. The ‘polluter pays’ principle has worked. Buying and using a car in Singapore is not for the faint-hearted. You have to first buy the right to own a car. The ‘Certificate of Entitlement’, valid from the date of registration of the vehicle, costs US $1,000 for a private car and US $ 5,000 for a company-registered car plus an additional 150 per cent of the open market value. This has to be revalidated for another 10 years by paying a fee, failing which the vehicle will be de-registered. This excludes annual road taxes and other surcharges.

These steps have largely been prompted by the need to curb vehicular emission. The debate about which automotive fuel is better has been raging for the last few months in India with the environmental lobby making vegetarian mincemeat of the automobile and auto ancillary companies.

Manufacturers argued that diesel was better and more efficient since it pollutes less than petrol, whereas environmentalists blamed diesel for the extra Suspended Particulate Matter (SPM) which comes out as part of vehicle exhaust. Both took the battle to court, as a result of which all diesel-run vehicles were banned in the National Capital Region. This paved the way for other non-polluting fuels like CNG and LPG to take over till more long-term measures like the MRTS are implemented.

The strong anti-diesel lobby in Europe and the USA insisted that pollution caused by diesel vehicles was nearly twice as hazardous as that caused by petrol vehicles. More than 40 substances were listed as hazardous air pollutants and toxic air contaminants (alkenes, benzene, aldehydres, particulate matter, polycyclic aromatic compounds) with tests revealing that diesel particulates were more carcinogenic. Studies, however, show that pollutant emissions from diesel and petrol vehicles can be minimised by using the right quality of fuel and technology. In case of diesel-powered vehicles, emission of particulate matters can be controlled and brought down by using filter traps, whereas particulate emissions from petrol-run vehicles can be minimised by using good quality unleaded petrol and catalytic converters.

A 1997 study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) recorded that at least one person died prematurely every hour in Delhi in 1995 due to SPM. A 1998 study at AIIMS showed how emergency visits and deaths due to respiratory and heart problems are the highest when particulate levels peak during winter and asthma attacks increase by 900 per cent. According to a WHO report, SPM triggers bad health effects even at concentrations much lower than those considered safe. These smaller particles are extremely dangerous as they go deep into the respiratory tract. Vehicles run on the best quality diesel and fitted with particulate traps emit pollutants that are five times more carcinogenic than those emitted by CNG-powered vehicles. Euro II compliant diesel is 30 times more carcinogenic than CNG. By using CNG, emission levels of particulates can be brought down to levels lower than Euro IV norms for diesel vehicles which are to be implemented in Europe only in 2005.

Anil Agarwal, Director, CSE, and a strong advocate of CNG, maintains: "Delhi could be the world’s first complete CNG-driven public system (also the cleanest) when the entire 10,000-strong CNG driven fleet is operationalised." However, a Tata Energy Research Institute (TERI) report disagrees, insisting that a cleaner version of diesel called Ultra Low Sulphur Diesel (ULSD) would have been equally effective. This works on diesel engines thereby preventing the expense of large-scale engine conversions. Experts mediate by saying that, chemically both diesel and CNG have the same carbon backbone. In diesel, it forms an unwieldy cumbersome chain which can snap at lower temperatures. Although it provides a great amount of energy, it leaves behind unpleasant residues. The unburnt fragmented solid bits or particulate matter is expelled as sooty black diesel exhaust. Sulphur, a common contaminant, produces sulphur dioxide, another deadly byproduct. CNG, on the other hand, is a stable, compact little molecule needing a spark to combust. Being a light gas it is often sulphur free and burns well. The poisonous byproduct carbon monoxide is converted to the slightly more acceptable carbon dioxide, making CNG a safer option. ULSD is diesel that has a sulphur content of just 0.005 per cent.

Complicating the debate further is the New York Transit Study which points out that CNG too emits ultrafine particulate matter which could be very harmful for the lungs. Proponents of ULSD argue that the case for CNG being a cleaner fuel has been exaggerated and comparisons with so called ‘dirty diesel’ typically used in India having a sulphur content which is more than 500 ppm (parts per million) is unfair since CNG comes out poorly in its comparison with ULSD. Added to this is the argument that comparisons between CNG and ULSD are often based on emissions from engines running on special test beds in unrealistic laboratory conditions. To get authentic findings, tests should be conducted on simulated road conditions, but unfortunately there is no lab or institute in India where this simulated test can be carried out accurately.

The Director, TERI, RK Pachauri, says: "If you gaze into the crystal ball, you will find that the shift to CNG is bound to lead to increased fares for users of buses which will in turn bring about a shift away from bus usage to greater usage of three-wheelers. This will lead to overloading and adverse traffic conditions, bringing us back full circle."

Pachauri feels that not only does CNG turn out to be expensive but it also leads to infrastructure problems. Delhi is supplied by a gas pipeline running from Haldia to Jagdishpur. Such an option might not be feasible for other cities. Moreover, there are not enough CNG fuelling stations and refuelling takes longer. Would ULSD then have been a better option ? The particulate trap necessary to make it as clean as CNG costs Rs 2 lakh and has to be imported. ULSD functions best with a more advanced Euro III engine. Cleaning up sulphur in diesel further cost oil companies an additional Rs 10,000 crore. While European companies have received financial incentives, Indian companies are unlikely to get any such green concessions.

Pachauri concludes by saying, "The air pollution crisis in Indian cities is a result of zooming vehicular traffic. Unfortunately drastic interventions like the CNG switch are really short-term solutions. Little attention is paid to future challenges which can ensure an efficient and rapid public transportation system. There is need to focus on a far more sensible modal mix of transport and improved traffic management which would have a far greater impact than a mere shift to any particular fuel. Because ultimately shifting from one fuel to another, howsoever clean and environmentally friendly it may be, will not solve the problem. We must find solutions which are applicable to other cities in the country too. A CNG/ULCD combination fleet as followed around the world may be a more practical alternative. The conversion process should be handled step by step so that commuters do not get inconvenienced. The gain from CNG buses can get lost by the many cars and two-wheelers that continue to clog Delhi roads. Only a farsighted comprehensive transport policy can be truly effective in cleaning Delhi’s air. There are no short cuts."

The Director (R&D), Indian Oil Corporation, AK Bhatnagar, strengthens the argument by saying that even the best fuels will continue to pollute if the engines are old, poorly maintained or if other factors like road conditions and traffic management are ignored.


Strategies adopted by different countries:

Short-term measures

  • Placing constraints on car ownership and usage, levying taxes on fuel purchased in urban areas (Singapore)

  • High cost of cars, taxes, bans on non- motorised vehicles on main routes, provision of bus lanes, banning encroachments (China, Singapore)

  • Developing variable pricing for toll roads (Europe, USA)

  • Permission to purchase new cars only if you have off-street parking space (Japan)

  • Improving traffic flows by including variable direction traffic lanes and reserving streets to certain classes of traffic

  • Making under-utilised vehicles more productive (buses, double deckers and becaks (Indonesia); tuk-tuks (Bangkok), rickshaws (India)

  • Walking, cycling (China)

Long-term measures

  • Mass Rapid Transport Systems (MRTS) and Light Rail Transport Systems (LRTS)

  • Monorails, linear induction of motors, automated guided transit systems, people movers (Japan)

  • Trams, light rails (Australia)

  • Suburban electric rails (Mumbai)

Projects in the pipeline

  • A 55-km rail system proposed for Delhi. It is one of the three elevated RTS cleared by the Government.

  • Vijay Mallaya’s Build-Own-Operate-Transfer project in Bangalore aided by the consortium of ICF Kaiser, Transportation and Transit Associates, Nippon Sharyo and GE. Other states to follow suit

  • Konkan Railways is going to run the Sky Bus Metro, which is a viable, innovative and maintenance-free transportation system which aims to bring down travel cost by 15 paise per km, handling 15,000-50,000 persons per hour, per direction and would run at 12-15 kmph.