Concern over poor air quality and traffic congestion in north east cities; action must gather momentum

  • New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), and Environment and Journalists Union of Assam organised a workshop in Guwahati on Air Quality and Sustainable Transportation Challenge

  • The limited air quality monitoring in the states of the north east region of India shows that 68 per cent of all cities monitored in the region have particulate matter levels higher than the standards.

  • This mirrors the national trend in which one third of urban Indians live in critically polluted areas.

  • Public transport, walking, and cycling are the strengths of the region. Pro-car policies can destroy this advantage and lead to enormous pollution, ill health and fuel wastage

  • Cities must scale up public transport, integrated multi-modal transport options, car restraint and walking for clean air

Guwahati, May 9, 2013:  After the recent shocker from the global burden of disease estimates that one fifth of global deaths occur from outdoor air pollution in India has forced a re-look at region specific solutions to cut the killer pollution. The national air quality review carried out by the Centre for Science and Environment shows that the states in the north east region of India are witnessing rapid increase in air pollution and untamed motorization. They need urgent action to leapfrog vehicle technology, scale up public transport, integrate multi-modal transport options, and encourage car restraint, walking and cycling.
This has emerged from the workshop on clean air and sustainable mobility jointly organized by the Centre for Science and Environment and Journalists Union of Assam. This meeting was organised to find solutions to the daunting air pollution and mobility challenges facing our cities. This is a part of the dialogue series that CSE has initiated across the country to focus on region-specific solutions of local relevance and interest.

The key cities in the states of Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura have begun to take steps to control air pollution. But limited information and awareness blocks effective solutions. Also many newer issues have remained unresolved. Most cities while taking steps in meeting air quality and transportation challenges, are also making mistakes in promoting cars that negate their efforts. These cities need to protect their inherent strength in sustainable commuting practices – public transport, walking, cycling and city design.

CSE review has brought out the following challenges and potential:

Air quality challenge in the region

  • In the grip of killer pollution: Limited air quality monitoring in the cities of this region shows that 68 per cent of all cities monitored in this region have particulate matter levels higher than the standards.  This mirrors the national trend and the crisis in which half of urban population breathes air with particulate levels that exceed the permissible limit and one third of urban Indians live in critically polluted areas. The key cities in the Assam valley -- Gwuahati, Byrnihat, Nagaon have already experienced that are officially turned as critical. At the same time Shillong, Silchar, lakhimpur, Dimapur, Golaghat, Dawki, Naulbari, Tazpur, Kohima and Tura have recorded levels termed as High.

  • Pollution hotspots: Several states in the north eastern region have pollution hotspots. This makes people extremely vulnerable to air pollution related diseases. It is said that the Central Pollution Control Board has identified several pollution hotspots. The well known survey of the C-NES in Guwahati and Shillong show air pollution has grown worse, It has found Khanapara in Guwahati and police bazaar in Shillong were most polluted because of vehicular pollution. Hill cities have special challenges.

  • Higher elevation has other challenges. Pollution can hand close to the ground because of inversion condition. This needs assessment. Influx of vehicles is bringing pollution to the nose level of people and increasing risk.

  • Serious public health impacts: While it is known from other studies that air pollution has serious public health concern, very little studies have been carried out to investigate this exhaustively. There are many media reports that have captured growing illness – respiratory, eye and skin problems and many more – as a result of this. Unfortunately, we could not identify any specific study done for the health effects of air pollution.

  • Global spotlight on local particulate pollution in Guwahati:  Emerging science shows that warming depends not only on the accumulated concentration of CO2 but also on the intensity of emissions of short-lived pollutants with much higher warming potential. Black carbon is an integral part of particulate matter. This absorbs radiative heat from the sun and warms everything around it (direct effect). Black carbon interacts with clouds and affects rainfall patterns (indirect effect); Black carbon falls onto snow and ice and changes the overall reflectivity of those surfaces, making them melt faster, which exposes the darker ground or water below them, causing even faster warming (albedo effect) Controlling particles gives co-benefits for air quality and climate mitigation….

  • Studies have shown that high levels of black carbon pollution in Guwahati responsible for accelerating glacier melt in the Himalayas. Desert Research Institute in Nevada, US, and NASA on  the affect of black carbon aerosols (emitted from vehicles and other combustion sources) on the atmosphere of the region.  Guwahati is experiencing extreme regional climate change already.  Study calculated that on an average the high level of pollutants have resulted in increased daily temperature of 2 degrees Celsius The Brahmaputra River Valley affects the climate. These pollutants are also carcinogenic and a serious health hazard. This emergence science will shape global discourse on climate change.

  • Unique air pollution challenge of the region – jhum cultivation: The Central Pollution Control Board’s (Impact Assessment of Jhum Cultivation on the ambient air quality shows Jhum burning areas of Manipur and  Mizoram: PM10 levels in the range 200-250 µg/m3 during burning period. Compared to “before burning” the background levels below 100 µg/m3. The CO levels  increased from nil to 200 mg/M3 during Jhum Burning. CPCB found reduction in burning time can reduce exposure time of the people to high Particulate Matters and Carbon  Monoxide

  • Vehicles are a major cause of concern: Vehicles emit significant amount of pollutants. The relative share of the vehicle segments to different pollutants varies.  Available evidences show that Vehicular emissions contribute to significant human exposure. Pollution concentration in our breathe is 3-4 times higher than the ambient air concentration. In cities like Gwuahati the Desert Research Institute and -NASA report shows that more than 400,000 vehicles ply Guwahati’s roads. About 70% of these vehicles don’t have emission clearance certificates, and emit excessive amounts of black carbon and other very toxic pollutants.. Unplanned and open burning of solid waste disposal is also aggravating the problem…CPCB has also identified High traffic congestions because of cars in the eleven spots.  

Action has begun
States in the north east have already initiated a wide gamut of measures:

  • Expansion of air quality monitoring in several states
  • Introduction of Euro II and Euro III emissions standards and fuel quality
  • Introduction of unleaded petrol
  • Introduction of LPG vehicles in some states. CNG in Tripura
  • Action on non-motorised transport – cycle, cycle rickshaws, and pedestrianisation
  • Expansion of bus transport etc
  • CPCB has adjudged Mizoram as the state which took the best steps against air pollution under the National Ambient Air Monitoring Program. Goa, Kerala and Pondicherry follow Mizoram. These grades given after examining the steps taken by states for a clean environment.
  • 2010-2011: Planning Commission announced incentives of Rs 1849.84 crore for those states that are environmentally aware.
  • CNG is one of the most important programmes with more than 70 per cent of the city’s fleet running on clean fuel. Studies carried out in Agartala. have already shown that the CNG programme has helped prevent 4,260 premature deaths annually in the city. The health cost savings is close to 1 per cent of the GDP.

North east faces the second generation challenge.

  • Explosive increase in vehicle numbers: Growing congestion is crippling cities. The north-eastern states together have 2.7 million registered vehicles. Assam comprises the largest vehicle fleet share (59%) followed by Nagaland (10%), Manipur (7.7%), Tripura (7%). Meghalaya (6.4%), Arunachal Pradesh (5.4%), Mizoram (3.4%) and Sikkim with the lowest vehicle fleet (1.4%)

Poor state of bus transport: There are only three bus transport undertakings in this region with 0.1% of the total fleet strength of all SRTUs. But these are not performing well given the enormous burden of inefficiency and costs. Meghalaya STC has the lowest number of employees at 307; Mizoram ST has the highest number of staff per bus (13.83); Tripura RTC has the largest decline in the proportion of fleet utilization from 70.2% during 2010-11 to 60.3% during 2011-12; Mizoram ST has the lowest vehicle productivity (49.7 km/bus/day) ura RTC: biggest decline in vehicle productivity (22.2 km/bus/day); Meghalaya STC: highest increase in fuel efficiency at 0.51 km/litre during 2011-12; Mizoram ST: Lowest staff productivity at 3.59 km/worker/day
Mizoram ST carried the lowest number of person at 0.7 lakh

  •  Special challenge of hill cities:
    Hill towns have land constraints: Available data shows that in Gangtok 92 per cent of roads have two lanes whereas in Gwuahati which is in the valley 61 per cent of roads have four lanes. 
    Greater dependence on personal vehicles: The available data shows that in hill towns like Gangtok the share of car trips in the total number of daily trips is high – as much as 40 per cent. This share is much higher than many other cities in the plains. This has happened because alternative modes of transport have not evolved adequately in these cities that were originally walking cities. Also on key roads of Gangtok cars form 88-91 per cent of traffic. 

  • Enormous congestion and parking pressure: With growing motorization public spaces are coming under enormous parking pressure. According to a study carried out under the aegis of the ministry of urban development about 45 per cent of the roads in Guwahati and 31 per cent of road in Gangtok are under parking encroachment. These towns how very high congestion index, poor walkability score and unacceptable level of road safety.

  • Pollution and congestion can discourage tourism in the region which is a new growth area. Promote ecologically responsible tourism and sustainable transportation mode for all.

Where must cities go from here?

  • Nurture strength of the region—Most of the cities in the region have originally evolved as walking cities. Vehicular intrusion is more recent. Yet, despite increase in number of vehicular trips by 14 times the daily trip length in cities ranges between only 2 to 4 km as in Gangtok, average trip length is 2.11 km. In Guwahati average trip length is 4.14 km. This makes these cities very conducive to using non-motorised transport and public transport system. The short trip length has made these cities and towns very walkable. This is the low polluting and low carbon mobility that needs encouragement. 

  • This region must not repeat the same mistakes as Delhi: Pro-car policies and investment in car-centric infrastructure can undermine the current strength. Car-centric policy is steadily marginalising and edging out the bus and non-motorised trips. In Delhi, bus ridership has dropped from 60 per cent in 2000 to 40 per cent now while its Master Plan has set a target of 80 per cent of public transport ridership by 2020. Both the cities are paying a very high price of congestion. Traffic jams lead to fuel wastage, more pollution and serious economic losses. A normal commuting time of half an hour has increased two-hours during peak hours. The difference between peak and non-peak hour is nearly disappearing.

  • Only more roads are not the answer: Delhi has not been able to solve its problem of pollution and congestion by building more roads and flyovers for cars.  Delhi is most privileged to have more than 21 per cent of its geographical area under road space. Delhi has built the maximum roads and flyovers. Yet its roads are totally gridlocked. Peak hour traffic has even slumped to below 15 km/hour. Cars and two-wheelers in Delhi occupy 90 per cent of the road space but meet less than 20 per cent of the travel demand. More roads are not the answer.

  • Need a public transport strategy: Design roads for public transport, cycling and walking. Not cars. This is the option for the city to cut killer pollution, crippling congestion, expensive oil guzzling and global warming impacts of vehicles.

  • Control fuel guzzling: The markets are shifting steadily towards bigger cars. Cars are predominantly big. This can seriously threaten energy security. It is evident from global studies that show even a 10 per cent increase in large vehicle sales can roughly result in a 2 per cent deterioration in fleet fuel economy. This means roughly, an additional 17,500 barrels of oil that will be consumed annually by those 10 per cent large vehicle sales. Cities need to fuel efficiency measures and standards to conserve fuel.

  • Car-centric infrastructure threaten walking and cycling infrastructure: In the region there is growing obsession with signal free corridors, elevated expressways to give cars the advantage. People are being forced to use foot overbridges to allow cars free movement. Non-motorised vehicles are being withdrawn from main roads to make space for cars. Bus routes are being curtailed. These are against the principle of sustainable mobility. Cities need to scale up infrastructure for public transport, walking and cycling. They need to follow compact city design to keep distances low.

  • Growing parking pressure: Personal vehicles demand enormous land area for parking. According to the CSE’s estimates annual registration of new cars created demand for additional land for parking equal to almost 80 football fields. How can the city commit so much of public space for parking and compromise on the other requirements for public amenities? The DNCC plans to establish as many as 70 parking lots in different areas within its limits aiming to ease acute gridlock in the metropolis. But only supply of parking spaces will not solve the problem.

Initiatives in the region 

  • Bus transport programme under JNNURM: Cities are planning to revive bus transport systems but have not thought through the strategy. Otherwise this investment can be at risk. Only few towns of the region are included in the category of eligible cities to receive fund through JNNURM. These include Itanagar, Imphal, Shillong, Aizawl, Kohima, Gangtok, Agartala.  Agartala and Shillong have received funds to buy buses under the JNNURM. According to the available information in Shillong bus ridership is expected to increase from 3 per cent to 10 per cent; in Agartala from 9 per cent to 12 per cent. Though modest it is a sure sign of improvement. All the three state undertaking Meghalaya, Miziram, Tripura are performing at a suboptimal level. Meghalaya STC had the lowest number of employees at 307. Mizoram STU has the highest number of staff per bus (13.83). Tripura RTC has the largest decline in the proportion of fleet utilization from 70.2% during 2010-11 to 60.3% during 2011-12. Moreover, Mizoram ST has the lowest vehicle productivity (49.7 km/bus/day)Tripura RTC: biggest decline in vehicle productivity (22.2 km/bus/day) 

  • Bus procurement must by backed by a proper bus deployment strategy. Otherwise investments will go waste and it cannot be a game changer. For example, Kohima, Imphal, Aizwal and Itanagar were all awarded 25 semi low floor buses each. The NE states were given 90% of central assistance for the bus scheme as opposed to 50% to other states. Agartala had been sanctioned 75 buses but none were on road. Shillong procured only 60 of the 120 buses sanctioned. Shillong utilised the money from the Union government but could not contributed its own share of 10% etc. 

  • Promoting pedestrian plaza and streets: Some of the cities have begun to reclaim the public space and streets to nake them vehicle free and improve liveability of the area. In Gangtok the M G Road, the central road of Gangtok, has gone for a major make over and been pedestrianised. In Imphal ‘pedestrian only’ regulations in Imphal market on experimental basis. Enforcement challenge: Led to mayhem on the first day of implementation on the roads surrounding the main market.  This ‘pedestrian only’ regulation in the market area should be regularized  and also implemented in Thangal Bazar and Paona Bazar. Such initiatives will have to planned and implemented well. 

  • Good usage of non-motorised transport: The index of slow moving non-motorised vehicles like cycle rickshaws is among one of the best in Guwahati according to the study by the ministry of urban development. But naturally very poor in hilly like towns like Gangtok. This is very important part of the para transit that is needed for last mile connectivity to reduce dependence on personal vehicles.

  • First to put parking restraint in the region: It is notable that when other cities of India are grappling with the parking problem and are focused only on providing more parking, Aizawl in Mizoram has taken the lead to use parking policy to also reduce car numbers. To own and buy a car the owner of any type of motor vehicle including two wheelers must have a garage within the residential or business compound or in some other place, or a garage hired from any other person, for parking the vehicle. Purchaser, before purchasing any type of motor vehicle including two wheelers or the person intending to purchase any such motor vehicle shall obtain a certificate from the ….transport department…that he has a garage, within his own residential or business compound or in some other place, or a garage to hire from other person, for parking the vehicle he intends to purchase.

The way ahead
Take cognizance of the unique challenges of the region and chart the future roadmap to cut pollution and congestion:

  • Need improved air quality monitoring and assess pollution profile: It is not possible to mitigate what is not known. The region needs to expand its monitoring grid and air quality assessment. At the same time carry out health impact studies. 

  • The states in the north east have a chance to plan their future growth differently: Cities need to make maximum investment in redesigning their existing road space and travel pattern to provide the majority of the people who use public transport and non-motorised transport, affordable and efficient mode of public transport and other alternatives to cars. Scale up and accelerate public transport and para transit reforms. Integrate public transport with para transit systems and non-motorised transport and make neighbourhoods accessible. It is wrong to curtail the services of para transit and cycle rickshaws. This will increase dependence on personal cars.

  • Hill towns in the region will require special plans to reduce traffic volume on the road. The strategies for the hill towns will have to be crafted differently. Create dense and walkable street network and pedestrian plazas wherever possible; use car restraint measures; provide alternative public transport and well organized para tansit connectivity, and so forth.

  • Introduce a parking policy to reduce congestion and car usage: Unlimited parking can erode available urban commons and public spaces and incite more car usage. Limit parking and price it high.

  • Use tax measures to discourage personal vehicle usage and inefficient use of fuels: Additional  revenue from this and parking should be used to improve alternatives to cars.

  • Introduce clean fuel and vehicle technology to cut pollution at source and protect public health: It is unacceptable that outdated emissions standards of Bharat stage III for vehicles and fuel quality continues in this ecologically sensitive area. This harms the lungs and health of the inhabitants. Also black carbon emissions from the growing fleet of diesel vehicles and trucks impacts on the snow, ecological wealth and the climate of the region. 

Plan cities for people not vehicles: Design roads for public transport, cycling and walking. Not for cars. This is the option for the city to cut killer pollution, crippling congestion, expensive oil guzzling and global warming impacts of vehicles.