While environmentalists have welcomed the recent National Green Tribunal order banning diesel vehicles that are more than 15 years old on the roads of NCR (national capital region), policy experts have adjudged the decision “reactionary” and “arbitrary”.

“It is not just ill-conceived; it appears to be an arbitrary judgment. The NGT is plagued by tunnel vision and has as much of an ideal public policy value as the bang of a sledgehammer to swat a housefly. Besides, it is just bad logic,” said Shashanka Shekhar Panda, CEO, Blue Earth Enterprise, a project management consultancy in smart cities and sustainable energy.

Comparing the order to the equally “illogical” road rationing scheme implemented by the Delhi government in intervals, he said, “Vehicular pollution has been proved to account for just 2% of the entire air pollution created by anthropogenic causes in Delhi according to an IIT-Kanpur study. Bad court rulings compound bad or non-existent policy mechanisms.”

Another study by IIT Delhi was contested by the NGT in May 2015. The study had found that even on days with low traffic volume, such as weekends and transport strikes, the PM 2.5 levels in the city did not decline. This contradicted the CPCB figures that had found that vehicle fumes contribute to around 60% of the pollution in the city. The tribunal then asked the scientists why they had not factored in the pollution caused by commercial vehicles that ply through New Delhi at night, which could have explained the level figures.

At that time, Additional Solicitor General Pinky Anand, who represented the transport ministry at the hearing, had argued against the ban, highlighting the FDI contribution and employment generation of the automotive sector.

“The FDI contribution cannot be a valid excuse for not complying with climate norms,” said Amit Bhandari, senior fellow at Gateway House Research. He mooted for a time-bound phasing out of vehicles that do not meet the emission criteria. “The NGT should not arbitrarily remove all vehicles that are 15 years old. A properly maintained vehicle that meets emission criteria should be allowed and the rest can be phased out over, say, a period of five years,” he said.

Slapping a ban on all old diesel vehicles without a 360 degree consideration of the consequences is simply “trying to give an impression that action is being taken to control pollution,” said Bhandari.

“Bad court rulings compound bad or non-existent policy mechanisms. Any plan for vehicle replacement needs to be voluntary, phased (four or more phases) with proper and due compensation along with replacement subventions and low interest funding facilities which are transparently calculated and paid to the vehicle owners. Citizens need to be co-opted in any sane policy measure, if you want it to bear meaningful impact. That is the lesson of all successful policy systems,” said Shashanka.

The NGT order came after the tribunal was incensed at the Delhi police’s inability to check the number of 15-year-old diesel vehicles plying on the roads, said Sanjay Upadhyay, advocate at the Supreme Court.

The NGT had on 11 December 2015 banned registration of new diesel-run vehicles in Delhi-NCR.

Later, the Supreme Court ordered that the diesel-run SUVs and cars having engine capacity beyond 2000 cc would not be registered in Delhi-NCR.

“The new order which asks for immediate de-registration of all old diesel vehicles is in no way in conflict with the Supreme Court verdict,” Upadhyay said. The propriety of the order may be questionable but the tribunal is well within its authority to impose the ban,” he added.

“Older vehicles that do not meet the emission standard must be phased out,” agreed Polash Mukherjee, research associate at the Centre for Science and Environment.

The CSE has been at the forefront of advocating cleaner fuels and an end to diesel-powered vehicles.

Detractors have argued that there are other sources of pollution besides emission from vehicular exhaust. Dust and smoke generating activities also contribute to particulate matter, “but the toxicity of the particulate matter from such activities compared to the vehicular emissions is less alarming,” said Polash.

“The particulate matter discharged by diesel vehicles is high on toxicity. In fact, diesel car exhaust is a class 1 carcinogen, categorised in the same group as nicotine, and known to cause lung cancer,” said Polash.

The CSE website writes: “The emission load from diesel vehicles that are 11 to 15 years old and meet older emissions standards emit a lot more on a per vehicle basis than those that are between 1 to 10 years old. Compared to a Bharat Stage IV car, a 15-year-old diesel car emits 7.6 times higher particulate matter and 3.4 times higher Nitrous Oxide. A 10-year-old diesel car emits 2.4 times higher PM. Air toxic emissions are high from older vehicles.”

So, what would be a comprehensive action-plan to tackle pollution in the national capital?

“There is no alternative to hard-nosed result oriented, time bound, well planned, transparently executed, people-public-private-partnership (PPPP) projects on urban rejuvenation, construction material management, transit oriented development and multi-modal integration, skill development and training of blue collar workers and operators of the public transport system such as bus drivers. Of course, public transport needs to be strengthened,” said Shashanka.

He recommends the Transport for London (TfL) model as an “excellent model for integration of a highly evolved public transport system”.

“Any public transport system needs to have an excellent and measurable customer (passenger) delight system that plugs feedback loop into the operations and maintenance of the public transport system and its development that would yield more efficient transport system with a lower carbon footprint. The development of Ring Railway as being planned under the leadership of IRSDC or other such PSUs would be a step in the right direction. Further development of transit oriented hubs, integrated with multi modal transport at New Delhi railway station as the nodal transportation hub with poly-centric sub-hubs around Delhi linked to it, could also yield rich dividends,” he said.

According to Bhandari, electric vehicles are a more bankable alternative. “The government must build infrastructure, create charging stations and give subsidies to promote it. Projects like the metro rail and better buses fuelled by CNG had transformed the transport landscape in New Delhi. A similar move is needed to tackle pollution from diesel vehicles, replacing them with a less polluting alternative. This should go hand in hand with the phasing out of old vehicles.”

Around 30,000 trucks and public carriers will have to go off the roads as a result of the NGT ban on old diesel vehicles. Members of transporters’ associations have rallied against the order saying that phasing out will impact prices of all goods and services in the city. Others have expressed concern over the ban, asking whether the economy is resilient enough to meet the abrupt move. On Thursday, car manufacturer Toyota approached the NGT with a plea arguing that banning the registration of new diesel SUVs and cars having engine capacity beyond 2000 cc would be a “corporate death penalty”.

On Friday, the Ministry of Heavy Industries filed an affidavit in the NGT saying that there was nothing in the law on scrapping diesel vehicles more than 15 years old.

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