Tougher Standards and Stricter Enforcement Will Curb Air Pollution

While several regions in India has experienced very poor air quality Index with high levels of ozone and nitrogen oxide officials at the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) had put in a request in Ministry Of Environment, Forest and Climate Change that

February 11, 2021

While several regions in India has experienced very poor air quality Index with high levels of ozone and nitrogen oxide officials at the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) had put in a request in Ministry Of Environment, Forest and Climate Change that the level of NOx for diesel powered locomotives recommended by a CPCB expert committee be raised by 64% per cent. The reason being only 29 out of 344 cities meet this criterion. However, this would gut the CPCB’s effort to control this deadly emission.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Clean India program to tackle India’s rising pollution levels and on September 17, 2014, India announced a three-parameter air quality index, which now has been expanded to eight parameters. The Indian AQI parameters are Particulate Matter (M5), Particulate Matter (M10), Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), Ozone (O3), Sulphur dioxide (SO2), Greenhouse gas (NH3) and Carbon monoxide (CO). There is a worldwide agreement -the main factors for air pollution are two Particulate Matters (PM) and Nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Nitrogen oxide reacts with other chemicals in the air and forms ground-level ozone. These are the main causes of chest pain, coughing, inflammation of airways and permanent damage to the lungs, leading to death.

In India, poor air quality kills more than two million people every year. Asthma patients now occupy five million hospital beds on any given day when demand for beds for Covid19 patients continues to rise. The situation is so grave the Supreme Court said India’s pollution levels are akin to using explosives to kill everyone.

Two important sources of Indian pollution are the 81 million transport vehicles and 5500 railway locomotives. But diesel fuel is not only the culprit. For example the United States runs over 90% of its locomotives on diesel. It is not even the grade of diesel fuel but rather EPA’s enforcement of its state of the art pollution regulations that protects the air quality there. Since 1999 NOx has been reduced through a series of regulations and now is 1.3 grams of NOx per brake horsepower per hour. Whereas, the Indian Railway still uses a 20-year-old technology.

In an effort to achieve carbon-free emissions, Indian Railway has been planning to move to an all-electric locomotive fleet in the next three years. However, the electricity to run these locomotives will come from coal fired plants.   Burning coal to produce electricity floods India’s air with fine particles. These particles enter the lungs and are a leading cause of serious disease and death. A recent study by the University of Chicago found India’s excessive reliance on coal is reducing the lives of tens of millions of people living in Indian cities by seven to ten years.

The CPCB is a pollution standard-setting body that is supposed to act independently.  To encourage citizens to approach the judiciary on pollution matters, India also set up the National Green Tribunal.  In this case, petitioners approached the Green Tribunal to make the government install state of the art emissions controls on its diesel locomotive fleet.  Currently, there are none.

Efforts to get the Tribunal and CPCB to act in the public interest have been successful only when the target of a complaint is against a private party rather than the government. Fighting the government is an uphill battle requiring enormous patience and resources.

The Green Tribunal refers any complaint it receives to the CPCB to determine what redress, if any. CPCB, in turn, usually invites a group of experts from industry, user groups and government entities to make recommendations.  After two years of deliberations, the CPCB recommended a strong standard for diesel locomotives: 5.5 grams of NOx per brake horsepower per hour - equal to the standard adopted by the US in 2014. Unfortunately, Indian Railway was strongly opposed the move and pushed CPCB to adopt a far weaker one. Indian Railway wants 8.0 grams for NOx to save money. With the matter still being reviewed, the recommendation from a CPCB official is pushing for 9.0 grams of NOx. This would provide almost no control over particulate matter under the perverse logic that because most Indian cities do not meet the existing weak Indian standards, the government should do nothing about it.   

What can be done to get the CPCB standard for NOx restored? There are three possible solutions. First, the Prime Minister should take control of this matter, just like he did when there was a delay in adoption of emission requirements for new cars. The Prime Minister not only broke the deadlock but also forced the adoption of an even stronger standard – BS6 compliant vehicles. Secondly, the former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh chairs the Parliamentary Committee on the Environment who could ensure that the country adheres to stricter norms. Finally, citizens can petition the Supreme Court to intervene. The question of course is why the public has to do the job of the politicians they elected? 


Shekhar Tiwari
Founder of the US-India Security Forum