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Rapid Increase in Number of Private Vehicles in New Delhi Threatens to Erase Air Quality Gains Since 2000

PM and NOx levels in Delhi are rising. Click to enlarge.

Delhi is in danger of losing the gains of its CNG program as pollution levels are once again creeping up to pre-2000 level. The latest analysis of recent 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 a few years of control.

Last winter, pollution levels in the city increased for the first time since the initiation of the CNG program, and this year pollution levels are already almost as high as what was in the city in pre-CNG days.

We will have to take tough measures to control growing air pollution and fast. Otherwise, Delhi will 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.

—Sunita Narain, director, CSE

In 2002, when Delhi initiated the CNG program, the annual average levels of respirable suspended particulate matter (RSPM, or PM10) in residential areas stood at 143 microgram per cubic meter. That dropped to 115 microgram per cubic meter by 2005. Since 2006, the annual average levels have jumped back to 136 microgram per cubic meter. The monthly average levels of RSPM in the winter of 2006-07 was as high as 350 microgram per cubic meter. The levels may even be higher this winter.

This year, the daily levels of even finer particulates smaller than 2.5-micron size (PM2.5), have already reached 240 microgram per cubic meter in Delhi in end-October. Studies in the US show that an increase of only 10 microgram per cubic meter of PM2.5 is associated with significant increases in health risks. High exposure to PM2.5 is known to lead to increased hospitalization for asthma, lung diseases, chronic bronchitis and heart damage. Long-term exposure can cause lung cancer.

Levels of nitrogen oxides (NOx) have been increasing in the city to dangerous levels.

CSE attributes the reversal to the rapid growth of private vehicles and in particular, diesel vehicles, in the city. Delhi currently has more than four million registered vehicles, and is adding 963 new personal vehicles each day on its roads—almost double what was added in the city in pre-CNG days.

With rapid fleet growth, congestion is also growing. Little has been done to plan for public transport in the city and connectivity between the growing cities of the National Capital Region, according to CSE. National Highway 8—the Delhi-Gurgaon road—which was designed for a traffic volume of 160,000 vehicles by 2015, already carries 130,000 cars.

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 increase public transport is needed along with steps to restrain the growth of private vehicles, according to CSE.

According to the Society for Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), market share of diesel cars has already increased to more than 30% in the last 18 months. In 1999, diesel cars accounted for 2% of new car sales. The share of diesel cars is expected to be 50% of total car sales by 2010. Delhi moved to Bharat Stage III emission standards—essentially Euro 3 standards—in 2005.

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.

—Anumita Roychoudhury, head of CSE’s air pollution campaign




Perhaps this will convince the Indian government to accelerate adoption of Euro 4, or perhaps even adopt some version of the U.S. emissions standards.

Simply adding more buses might get some people off their scooters and out of their cars, but there is a good chance it will simply encourage more people of modest means to take trips they simply would not have taken otherwise. This is not a bad result, morally speaking, it just isn't very useful for air pollution control.

In a society like India's, where a good chunk of people people are rapidly clawing their way out of poverty, a private car is probably a status symbol as much as it is a time saver and convenience. It is also much more spacious and comfortable than a seat on a bus, whether or not it is faster, and keeps the unwashed masses away from one's personal space. People will want to own one if possible, and the only way to keep pollution under control is to tax the hell out of cars so fewer people can afford to own them (while ensuring that an adequate network of alternatives gets built with private or public money), or make each car much cleaner, or some combination of the two.

Rafael Seidl

The real issue here is that law enforcement in India is quite chaotic. New vehicles do have to conform to fairly strict emissions regulations, but there are many legacy diesel vehicles that is kept on the roads by roadside mechanics. Retrofitting a DPF is not possible on many older models and would anyhow often cost more than the whole car is worth.

Moreover, diesel is taxed very lightly in India whereas gasoline is expensive - partly for historical reasons and partly because much of the gasoline is exported to Iran, which has completely banned diesel cars to combat pollution in Tehran.

One option, at least for taxis and buses, is to encourage the use of LPG. This is a byproduct of oil refining and can be burnt cleanly in spark ignition engines equipped with inexpensive three-way catalysts. The trick is to make the vehicle conversion and the fuel cheap enough to tempt operators into switching.

CNG/ANG is another possible route, but more expensive. India already produces significant amounts of biogas in backyard digesters but virtually all of it is used for cooking and home heating.

Harvey D


How can we (have the audacity) to tell China and India that they should enforce the most rigid anti-pollution standards while our per capita GHG is still about 8 to 12 times higher than either one of those two large countries.

Let us reduce our own per capita GHG from 20-25 tonnes to 3-5 tonnes before we tell others what to do. Do not forget that without all the Chinese imported goods, our own per capita GHG would be much higher and their even lower.

China should be commended for having over 20 million e-bikes on their roads and streets and taking measures to introduce HEVs, PHEVs and BEVs massively. India is also planning to do likewise.

Instead of complaining and trying to dictate we should help them with the technologies required to develop without making all the environmental mistakes we have done.

Rafael Seidl

@ Harvey D -

this article is not about fuel consumption / CO2 emissions, it's about toxic emissions. Those are local or regional in scope and it's up to each country or supranational organization to decide how to deal with them.

I merely tried to provide some additional background info on why pollution levels are rising again there.


Harvey D.:

I refer you to my opening lines: "Perhaps this [evidence of increasing pollution levels] will convince the Indian government to accelerate adoption of [tougher emissions standards.]"

We (westerners) aren't telling them a thing. I'm just speculating on what India's own, democratically elected, homegrown government will decide to do. After all, they launched one pollution control program on what I assume was their own initiative (god help me if the World Bank or IMF was somehow demanding that prior effort), so maybe they'll do it again.

Also, as Rafael points out, the pollution at issue here is NOx and PM -- which creates problems typically local in scope -- and not GHGs. But to the extent that places like China emit such huge quantities of NOx, SOx and PM that they actually degrade air quality on the American west coast, we should be demanding action from them. While the U.S. emits plenty of GHGs, we have taken great pains to drastically reduce smog and acid-rain causing pollutants, and as dirty as China lets its cities become, it has no business making our cities dirty too.

(On the flip side, we have no business flooding their cities with rising sea levels that we may be causing by GHG emissions, but action on one front need not be tied to action on the other, especially if the scale or timing of the threats is different).

Harvey D

NBK & Rafael:

The Beijing smog is not that different from the L.A. smog except that a major portion of the Beijing smog is created to supply us with low cost manufactured goods.

Removed the huge multi-billion dollars a year manufactured good exports or tansfer the smog created to the buying countries and you will have a very different picture.

By transfering steel making from USA to China, we have reduced our pollution but increased China's.

Is that what we are supposed to be proud of?

Roger Pham

Anyway, returning to the topic of urban air pollution, India has a geographic advantage of being in tropical/sub-tropical region whereby one can get around just fine with bicycles or electric-assisted bikes. I wonder why this is not encouraged by their government nor was this mentioned in the article? Even in colder climate like the Netherlands, bicycles are very popular, and France too, is taking steps to encourage bicycle usage by a rental-dropoff system in the urban area.

Vijay Kumar

How many vehicles using Diesel in INDIA?

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