July 26, 2021
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Pandemic May Have To Wait For Vaccine, But Technology To Deal With Air Pollution Is Ready

Breathing polluted air kills almost 2 million Indians each year and seriously shortens the lives of another 5-7 million annually.

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Pandemic May Have To Wait For Vaccine, But Technology To Deal With Air Pollution Is Ready
File photo of people taking early morning walk amidst smog in New Delhi
AP FIle Photo
Pandemic May Have To Wait For Vaccine, But Technology To Deal With Air Pollution Is Ready

During a hearing in the United States Congress on restricting H1B visas, Bill Gates was asked, “Can the United States do without Indians?” He replied, “Yes, we can if we can live without Hotmail,” the first free email service, invented by Sabir Bhatia, an Indian American. When the right time came, Gates handed over the leadership of his beloved Microsoft to an Indian, Satya Narayan Nadella. Can India have better well-wisher than Bill Gates?

In 2018, Bill Gates, pained by the rapid growth of lung diseases in India, asked his Gates Foundation to conduct a scientific study to determine the impact of air pollution on its 1.3 billion Indians. Knowing Indians can sometimes be suspicious of studies about India conducted by foreign parties, the Gates Foundation partnered with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), a government body. Forty per cent of the investigators for this study were Indian nationals.

The findings, which were based on actual readings from Indian Government monitoring stations and then fed into a sophisticated computer model, confirmed India is home to 21 out of the 30 most polluted cities in the world -- a fact that had never been acknowledged by the Indian government. More importantly, the study concluded that breathing this polluted air kills almost 2 million Indians each year and seriously shortens the lives of another 5-7 million annually.

To be fair, India has privately acknowledged its bad air quality and has taken some concrete steps to combat it. For example, low-income Indian families traditionally burn wood for cooking, except in several of the Northern states where they use coal. These primitive, unfiltered fuel sources contribute approximately 30 per cent to the pollution in India. Families that use these fuels for cooking breathe air that causes asthma, lung cancer, heart disease, stroke and death. After realising this problem, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered his government to distribute 80 million LPG cylinders for cooking to the poor. This programme has made an important reduction in the number of families burning wood and coal in their homes for cooking and has saved countless lives. Yet, despite this commendable step, the air quality Index (AQI) of India has continued to vary between “unhealthy” and “hazardous” with an Air Quality Index reading of between 300-400. During winter, the number goes much higher.

The largest source of outdoor air pollution in India comes from transport vehicles, such as auto rickshaws, cars, trucks, buses and railway locomotives. All of them use fossil fuels -- primarily diesel, followed by gasoline and compressed natural gas (CNG). Furthermore, diesel generators, which operate using similar engines to those in diesel cars and trucks, contribute an additional 10 per cent to India’s air pollution. These generators are used extensively by 80 per cent of businesses and 10 per cent of homes in India to provide electricity when the electricity goes off.

Earlier this year, India introduced the “Bharat Stage 6” pollution control standard for all new automobiles. This standard equals the one being used in Europe, and, if applied to all vehicles, it will significantly reduce the air pollution for India’s multitude of cars. While this is a positive step forward, it will be only a drop in the ocean unless old automobiles and trucks are required to be retrofitted.

But what about diesel trucks and locomotives which account for 35 per cent of all of India’s outdoor air pollution and are a major cause for premature deaths and debilitating diseases including lung cancer? In 2016, a citizen’s complaint regarding “excessive pollution from the Diesel Locomotives” was filed before the National Green Tribunal, a judicial body set up to expeditiously deal with environmental issues. Currently India has no pollution controls on any of its diesel locomotives. After an initial hearing, the Tribunal ordered the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), a statutory body within the Ministry of Environment, to examine this complaint and report back regarding what type of remedy would be needed to protect our citizens. After more than a year of hearings and testimony from interested parties and expert witnesses, the CPCB not only agreed with the complaint but also decided to recommend strong, world-class pollution control standards for all diesel locomotives, old and new.

Currently Indian Railways has 5,650 diesel locomotives. Of that amount, 3000 are old technology and scheduled for retirement. The remaining 2,500 locomotives are newer and were manufactured with EMD technology post 1999. These locomotives are currently the backbone of Indian goods and passenger trains. India also began to purchase new diesel locomotives four years ago. To this date, 150 new locomotives have been made abroad by General Electric (GE) and shipped to India. Two years ago, GE sold its locomotive business to another American locomotive assembler Wabtech.

Almost 90 per cent of American trains use diesel locomotives. The American locomotives, however, emit only negligible air pollution because they employ state of the air pollution control technologies. India may want to consider looking into the American approach. Modifying these locomotives would be a small but wise investment that would pay handsome dividends.

The most serious health problems created by diesel engines are emissions of Nitrous Oxide (NOx) and the Particulate Matter (PM), very tiny air particles no more than 2-10 microns or 1/30th of a human hair in diameter. The NOx is highly toxic to human health and the PM enters the lungs causing disease and destruction and eventually death. American diesel locomotives are required to meet the strict Tier-3 pollution control standard set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Tier-3 standard reduces NOx by 60 percent and PM by 70 percent. And the US has recently developed an even newer technology to meet the Tier-4 standard, which will reduce them by 98 per cent. The Tier-3 emissions standard currently used in the US and throughout Europe and other developed countries is the same standard the CPCB has ordered for the new locomotives being manufactured by Wabtech. For the 2500 older EMD locomotives, the CPCB has required installation of Tier-2 emissions technology, which, while slightly weaker than Tier-3, will still remove more than 60 per cent of the NOx and 40 per cent of the PM.

Electric locomotives have been praised in India for being a solution to our air pollution problem. Proponents of electric transport claim they produce zero air emissions. Unfortunately, electric proponents hide a dirty little secret: when the pollution created by burning coal in thermal power plants to produce the electricity needed to electrify the rail lines is factored in, electric locomotives produce more pollution than diesel locomotives that have been upgraded to the latest emissions controls. The majority of India’s electricity has been produced by a public company, NTPC, with generating facilities located primarily in Bihar, Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, Odisha - the same states the Gates reports having among the highest levels of death and disease from outdoor air pollution.

For the past year, the CPCB has been trying to enforce the Tier-2 standard for the existing diesel fleet and Tier-3 for the new diesel locomotives. Making these standards mandatory will greatly reduce smog caused by NOx and PM, thereby saving many human lives. Unfortunately, bureaucrats at the Railway Ministry are still fighting to preserve the status quo of no emissions controls. After months of pressure from environmental experts, their ”compromise” position is the Environment Ministry should instead accept a twenty year old standard (Tier One) that is no longer used in most of the world and would do little to clean up the air. Ironically, using the Tier-1 technology would cost more than the newer standards because no one even manufactures that old technology. India has always wanted the best technology the world has to offer. Why choose an old, abandoned technology?

This problem is no different than the lengthy debate the bureaucrats held on whether to aquire BS 4 vs BS 5 emissions controls for new automobiles. There was nothing but delay on behalf of outside interests that did not want to change. The Supreme Court of India, whose constitutional duty is to protect the rights of all citizens, had to get involved, and when it did, it ordered the implementation of BS 6, the most stringent standard.

Similarly, there was a huge, lengthy bureaucratic bottleneck over who would pay for the distribution of LPG cylinders to poor housewives. Nothing happened until Prime Minister Modi forced the decision and told the government to cover the cost. This was an important victory for India’s citizens, but much more must be done. As proof, half the children in Bangalore currently suffer from asthma.

Today Bill Gates must be a frustrated man. Five years ago, he warned the biggest potential killer the world faced was not war but a pandemic. According to Gates “the whole point  of talking about (a deadly problem) is to take action and minimize damage”. Not to act on this scientifically verified warning about diesel emissions is immoral, particularly when one considered pollution kills more than one hundred times more people in India annually than Covid 19 has during the past four months. We may have to wait for a vaccine to solve the pandemic, but the technology is ready and waiting to significantly reduce deaths from diesel emissions. We must act now.

(The author is the Founder of the US-India Security Forum. Views expressed are personal)

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