Action plan agreed for India's polluted cities

Posted: 5 February 2009

Critically polluted cities in India need a massive transition to public transport, running on clean fuel, so that they can deal with the challenge of pollution and congestion, according to a new agenda for action agreed this week by the the pollution monitoring arm of India's the Supreme Court.

Traffic in Mumbai
Traffic in Mumbai
Traffic dodges a cow in Mumbai, India. Photo © Martin Roemers/Panos Pictures
"Over the years, it has become clear that each city is fighting a losing battle against air pollution and growing congestion - because of the growing numbers of vehicles. Economic progress of our cities will depend on their environmental health. A turnaround is only possible when these cities recognise the need for a transition to public transport and adopt it," said Bhure Lal, chairperson of the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA).

He was talking at a meeting to discuss the city action plans, attended by representatives of pollution control bodies and state administrations from eight of the nine pollution-ridden cities that the EPCA has been monitoring.

The eight cities include Ahmedabad (Gujarat), Bangalore (Karnataka), Chennai (Tamil Nadu), Hyderabad (Andhra Pradesh), Kanpur and Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh) and Pune and Sholapur (Maharashtra).

Urban funds

These cities stand to gain from a recent economic stimulus package of the Union government. The package, which was welcomed by the EPCA, will provide funds to buy urban transport buses. This initiative, said Lal, "will greatly help cities move towards the much-needed transition".

Urban pollution in Hyderabad
Urban pollution in Hyderabad
Urban pollution in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India. Photo © Blacksmith Institute.
Commenting on the agreement, Sunita Narain, a member of the EPCA and director of the independfennt Centre for Science and Envirornment (CSE)said: "This is clearly an opportunity to reform and reinvent mobility, and cities need to grab this opportunity."

But to get this money, the cities have to meet conditions set by the Union ministry of urban development. These call for the cities to prepare a project report giving details of the city bus service/bus rapid transit system's planning, financial arrangements, user charges, sustainability analysis and operational maintenance. They must also ensure that the scheme for buses is tied to certain reforms in the field of urban transport.

"Until now, successive governments have neglected buses; so has the powerful automobile industry of the country. While in 1951, one out of every 10 vehicles sold was a bus, today this ratio is comical - only one out of every 100 is a bus" said Sunita Nairain. "In 2007-08 only 38,655 buses were sold against 1.5 million cars".

This, says the EPCA, despite the fact that buses still account for about 50 per cent of all journeys performed by road.

Strategic planning

All this has meant that private vehicles have taken over India's roads. But the resulting congestion has slowed travel times and increased pollution, in spite of enormous efforts to build roads and fly-overs.

The EPCA's seven-piont city-wide action plan says cities should devise a strategy for bus ownership and management based on current best practices.

They must look at options for financing and management, including fiscal reforms; examine the possibility of dedicated bus lanes; and the availability and cost of buses. They must also devise advertisement and parking policies and an overall funding mechanism for public transport.

The EPCA points to the disparity between taxes imposed on private vehicles and buses - which in the case of buses is very high. It also calls for centrtal government funding to assist cities meet the cost of the new emphasis on public transport.

There have been some moves in the right direction, says CSE. Delhi, for example, has taken the first steps in fiscal reform by creating an Air Ambience Fund, drawing on deisel taxes. Bangalore and Chennai (formerly Madras) has impose a 'green tax' on older vehicles, while Surat has a dedicated urban transport fund.

But, as the EPCA showed, there is a very long way to go to create a clean, people-centred transport system in India.

This article was developed from information supplied by the Centre for Science and Environment, an influential non-government agency based in Delhi.