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air pollution

How smart strategies, minimum funds can help India breathe free

The Rs 4400 crore funds for cleaning air in cities, can be a good beginning if used optimally, strategically and in a focussed manner.

Highlighting the concern of urban air pollution, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman allocated Rs. 4,400 crore for improving the air quality of cities with over one million people, in the Union Budget 2020-21. While this is a relatively modest allocation for the enormous task at hand, it sets a precedent, and has the potential to become a multi-year effort. Air quality improvements need sustained efforts spanning over several years, and one hopes that this fund starts off the long-term process in this direction.


Several factors cause poor air quality in cities, their shares varying vastly from one another depending on the seasons, the geographies, the infrastructure and development of the cities and how its people live and commute. Sectoral contributions also vary – from the city’s transport system to the existence of polluting industries and power plants, construction dust, burning of urban wastes as well as of agricultural wastes in adjoining areas.


In metropolis like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, transport is a consistent and significant contributor to pollution across all seasons. Hence, focusing on this sector could be a judicious starting point to reduce the base pollution level across highly populated cities.


Managing vehicular pollution

For long, we have known that the key to managing vehicular pollution is to effect a modal shift – away from personal transport to shared mobility systems, and from fossil fuel-based systems to cleaner ones.

Since mid-1980s, most Indian cities have witnessed a rapid growth in the number of motor-vehicles plying on its streets – up from 5.4 million in 1981 to over 210 million now, a nearly 40-fold increase nationally. This furious pace of motorization has led to severe air pollution, adversely impacting the well-being of the people.


Shared Mobility still a distant dream?

Historically, policies have focused on improving our public transport system in the belief that it will influence people’s transportation choices. Public mass-transit systems (like public buses) consumes less fuel and emits less pollutants on a per-passenger basis. Therefore, a shift from private to public mass-transit was looked upon as an apt solution to air pollution problems. Unfortunately, this shift did not occur as effectively as it was envisioned, thereby making it necessary to take a closer look at what went wrong and what needs to be changed.

Over the years, rising income levels have encouraged people to adopt personal mobility options and move away from poor quality public transport, primarily because they can now afford more convenient rides. Ownership of a personal vehicle also became a status symbol for many.


How technology is enabling the mobility shift

This scenario is changing now, thanks to the emerging slew of shared mobility options and app-based ride providers. These new players seem to have read the market well and offered the conveniences that commuters are looking for, especially appealing to the younger generation. Today, app-based rides offer door-to-door services and on-demand availability, and give the option of being used independently or shared with other passengers at a reduced cost. A variety of vehicle types – from two-wheelers, three-wheelers to cars of different sizes and mini-buses – are also available to suit passenger preferences.


Shared mobility a Game Changer?

These emerging trends need to be leveraged to enable cities to offer premium-quality shared mobility options at a nominally higher price, to appeal to those people who can afford personal motor-vehicles. The difficulties of driving on congested roads and finding parking in city centres will make them a better option. Doing away with outdated regulations that constrain the use of data-led, app-based commute, and adopting a structured premium public transport models, would only require a small share of the total funds for cleaning the air in cities, but will serve as a game changer in shifting to cleaner commute.


Creating pedestrian friendly spaces

Another good use of these funds could be to visibly improving the walking and cycling environment in cities. Cities like Seoul, South Korea, have created many excellent pedestrian pathways connecting frequented locations, and thereby enhanced the share of walking as an important mode of transport. This not only improves people’s health and well-being but also the air quality. As a test case in India, three to five cities can be chosen to meaningfully scale up the walking environment. Once fully functional, these cities can become case studies for others to adapt and replicate.


Building up EV Infrastructure gradually

Finally, accelerating electric mobility will be a definite statement for India to demonstrate our commitment to clean our air. The Ministry of Heavy Industry and Enterprises’ Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric vehicles (FAME) India scheme offers financial support for electric mobility, especially in the purchase of vehicles and setting up charging facilities. However, there are several other supporting actions that will be crucial to make a success of this effort. Building city-specific road maps for moving towards 100 percent electrification of public transport, and specifically focusing on the auto rickshaws and public taxis sectors, will support the shift. Preparatory actions like developing a pool of manpower with the right set of skills for repair and maintenance of electric vehicles and designing operating plans for electric buses on specific routes, will be essential. There is also a need to offer lower interest loans to a variety of stakeholders to incentivize electric mobility. An electric mobility fund with lower interest loans, made possible by combining public funds with borrowed funds, can support a targeted push. All of these can be done with the allocations made under the budget, leveraging the support offered by FAME.


The Rs 4400 crore funds for cleaning air in cities, can be a good beginning if used optimally, strategically and in a focussed manner. A strategic plan that focuses on reducing vehicular pollution in cities, and a miniscule share of the budget fund is all that is needed, to markedly improve air we breathe in our cities.


(This article is authored by Dr. OP Agarwal, CEO, World Resource Institute, India)
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