India: Recent rulings on purifiers, banning old cars won't work: Experts

India: Recent rulings on purifiers, banning old cars won't work: Experts
In May, the WHO labelled New Delhi the world’s most polluted city, an assessment the Indian government rejected. Vehicles account for 75 per cent of the city’s pollution.

Ms Ritu Sharma has been in and out of doctors' offices this year because of a breathing problem that doctors say is triggered or made worse by the pollution in India's capital city, New Delhi.

This year has been particularly bad for the mother of two, who works in the trade and tourism industry. The problem has forced her to stop going to the office for weeks at a time, and she is fearful of having an asthma attack whenever she leaves home.

Then, something gave her hope. In decisions made this month and the last, the National Green Tribunal, an environmental court, ordered that vehicles older than 15 years old should be taken off New Delhi's roads and air purifiers be placed in all public areas.

Environmentalists say the rulings will have limited impact.

But Ms Sharma, 50, who is trying everything from homeopathy to yoga, was more than happy.

"It is a fantastic decision. I go to hospital and I see so many people there for the same breathing problems," she said. "We have to take action now."

As concerns about pollution and its impact on health grow, the tribunal has asked the authorities to step up the removal of the older vehicles, estimated to comprise about 2 percent of 8.4 million registered vehicles, including cars, motorcycles and auto rickshaws.

Vehicles account for 75 percent of the city's pollution, according to the New Delhi government.

"The direction for not permitting the 15-year-old vehicles to ply in Delhi may cause some hardship but, certainly, that hardship on individuals or groups of individuals must give way to the public cause," the tribunal said in its judgment last month.

In May, the World Health Organisation (WHO) labelled New Delhi the world's most polluted city, more so than Beijing, an assessment that was quickly rejected by the Indian government.

The WHO study of 1,600 cities found New Delhi to have the dirtiest air, with an annual average of 153 micrograms of PM2.5 per cu m - a measure based on the amount of particulate matter - while Beijing came in at 77th place, with a PM2.5 reading of 56 micrograms per cu m. Several Indian cities were on the list.

A decade ago, it seemed like India's capital city would tackle the pollution problem after the Supreme Court ordered public transport vehicles to switch to compressed natural gas, industries were moved out of the city and the Delhi Metro was introduced.

But earlier gains have been wiped out due to unchecked vehicle growth, crowded metro trains, a preference for diesel cars due to lower costs, industries coming up in satellite cities and wood fires in nearby rural areas.

In 2001, the annual average level of respirable suspended particulate matter (or PM10) in residential areas stood at 149 micrograms per cu m, said the Centre for Science and Environment.

By 2008, it shot up to 209 micrograms per cu m, and levels this year have gone up to 255 in some places, three times higher than safe levels.

Exacerbating the problem, Delhi adds 1,400 new vehicles, including cars, motorcycles and scooters, every day on average.

Cars are also social status symbols in the city and, because of this, residents change their vehicles every three to five years, say experts. This means the ban on older vehicles would have minimal impact on car sales.

Over the past two weeks, the Delhi transport authorities have been working to track down older vehicles. This is difficult, as owners of private vehicles, unlike those using commercial vehicles, do not need to renew their registration annually, and many cars are sold to other parts of India.

"The government has started the process, but it is really a challenge. We need to do our homework and clean up the data to track down owners," said Delhi transport official Anil Chhikara.

He said a public notification would be issued in the coming weeks to ask owners of old cars to voluntarily give them up. However, there is no financial incentive to do so, and this increases doubt that the ban will be successful.

Environmentalists say the ban is not enforceable and are pushing for tougher measures, such as introducing a congestion tax, limiting the number of cars and encouraging the use of public transport.

"The focus should be on cutting the pollution, so you need aggressive measures to control the number of vehicles on the road, bring in Euro 6 emission standards, and have good walking and cycling lanes and a stringent parking policy to discourage people from using cars," said Ms Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of the Centre for Science and Environment.

"Today, the average age of vehicles is between four and seven years. So, the ban will have a limited impact. And air purifiers work in a controlled environment, not in the open." The tribunal has also asked the authorities to crack down on people who burn leaves, plastic and other trash, but fully implementing this is a major challenge.

Dr Naresh Kumar, associate professor of environmental health at the University of Miami, said piecemeal measures will not work. "(The government) is dealing with little aspects of the problem. If a baby cries, you don't understand why the baby is crying and you assume the baby is hungry. They are not taking a holistic approach, and it is getting worse."

This article was first published on December 22, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.

More about

Purchase this article for republication.
Your daily good stuff - AsiaOne stories delivered straight to your inbox
By signing up, you agree to our Privacy policy and Terms and Conditions.