OPINION| From Electric Vehicles Subsidy to Ending Crop Burning, How Budget Can Help Clean India’s Apocalyptic Air
Union Budget 2019 is expected to highlight the government’s intent on reviving growth. However, failure to urgently act on air pollution can derail these efforts by jeopardising public health, agricultural productivity, and sustainable development.
Representative Image (PTI)
The Union Budget 2019-20 will be important for reasons more than one. It will be the first annual financial statement of the new government which resumed power with a massive mandate. It will also be keenly eyed because the poll manifestos of major political parties featured air pollution, signifying the issue’s entry into India’s political discourse.
That air pollution demands urgent and aggressive attention is an understatement. When 14 out of the world’s most air-polluted 15 cities are in India, urgent regulatory and policy measures become more necessary than ever.
The country has disproportionately high mortality and disease burden due to air pollution, found in several research studies. Reducing the substantial avoidable deaths and disease burden from air pollution depends on rapid deployment of effective multi-sectoral policies commensurate with the magnitude of pollution in each state and city.
The Budget is expected to highlight the government’s intent on reviving growth, creating economic opportunities, and working towards socio-economic wellbeing of the citizens. However, failure to urgently act on air pollution can derail these efforts by jeopardising public health, agricultural productivity, and sustainable development.
A few areas where the Union Budget can make targeted interventions in pollution mitigation include planned subsidies to enhance penetration of liquified petroleum gas and promotion of electric cookstoves in rural areas and urban slums.
While the government provides subsidised LPG cylinders, a large part of the population still relies on biomass burning for cooking. This leads to residential emission and respiratory issues. Enhanced subsidy support to further promote electric cooktops will help in their penetration among the masses. There is also a need for subsidy support to strengthen the natural gas infrastructure in the country.
Considering very high contribution of industrial sector in city and national level inventories, budgetary support for improving Natural Gas infrastructure for air-polluting industrial clusters will also be a welcome step. A rapid extension of the gas grid to cover major air polluting industrial clusters would enable them to use clean gas as their source of energy.
The Budget should also look at enhancing subsidies for promotion of electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles. With zero tailpipe emissions, electric vehicles are India's one of the strongest bets against urban air pollution. The Budget should further incentivise buyers for purchasing hybrid and electric vehicles and also for setting up charging infrastructure.
Older vehicles contribute to majority of emissions from vehicular sector. Development of vehicle scrappage centres and support for fleet modernisation programmes is another area where the Budget should intervene. There is presently no mechanism for scrapping older vehicles or retrofitting them to make them less polluting.
Incentivising scrapping of old vehicles and introducing tax reductions on replacing older vehicles with newer models will stimulate fleet modernisation across India. Further, India’s current inspection and monitoring mechanism is not enough to ensure low emissions from in-use vehicles.
There is no way to ensure that vehicles during their lifetime, with proper maintenance, comply with their original mass emission standards. For in-use vehicles, instead of the loaded mode tests, stationary mode idling tests have been prescribed which do not reflect the real-world situation. It is, therefore, essential to strengthen the inspection procedure to address the menace of high emitters due to lack of proper maintenance.
Financial support for setting up adequate centralised and further strengthened inspection centres in every city, in place of the existing decentralised PUC centres, will be a welcome step. These limited number of inspection centres should be closely monitored by the respective state transport departments for quality assurance.
Electric buses can significantly clean up air pollution in cities, but their high cost of procurement is a deterrent. The Budget should subsidise the procurement of electric buses. It could also look at exempting GST on them.
The Budget should also explore waste-to-energy conversion. Burning of agricultural residue, which causes smog and extremely high air pollution levels, can be discouraged if its conversion into energy is incentivised in the Budget. Incentivising farmers to not burn but selling their crop residue, and tax rebates and subsidy support for briquettes manufacturing units could also be explored. These briquettes can be used as a fuel in power plants and industries.
The waste landfills which have infamously become garbage mountains especially in metro cities need to be dealt with immediately. These sites are a source of local air pollution, sub-surface fires and accidents arising out of slope collapses. The Budget could subsidise recovery of landfill gas which can then be harvested to be used as a potential fuel.
Last but not the least, policy announcement to enhance capacities of state pollution control boards should also be there in the Budget. Institutional strengthening of SPCBs is a must to ensure successful and effective implementation of air pollution control strategies. This calls for higher budget allocations, recruitment of scientific professional, and trainings on air quality monitoring, and modelling tools.
Once deployed, this combination of strategic short, medium, and long-term measures can kickstart the transformation of our air quality, while ensuring that we enter a more sustainable trajectory of development.
The writer is Director of the Earth Science and Climate Change Programme at TERI
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