Is Rs 2.6 trillion a big sum? It’s 1.4% of GDP and more than the central Budget for any sector, except defence. Therefore air pollution, the cause of Rs 2.6 trillion loss as estimated by a Lancet study (UNEP, BMGF and ICMR funded), deserves priority attention. More so because air pollution is also responsible for 1.7 million untimely deaths annually. It’s a good beginning, therefore, that the FM has promised Rs 2,217 crore in the Budget to tackle air pollution.
The recent economic order labelled cities as growth hubs and nodes for professional networks. No longer though. Those who can are exiting courtesy digitalisation enabled flexibility, lower cost, enhanced productivity, health and happiness. The migration is particularly evident in metros like Delhi. It’s not surprising that the capital topped Lancet rankings with the highest concentration of annual population-weighted mean PM2.5 (13.8 times national average) and the highest per capita economic loss of Rs 4,500.
A majority (70%) of the pollution is locally generated. This was evidenced by a reduction of over 70% in PM2.5, 80% for NO2, and 40% for SO2 during Delhi’s lockdown. Delhi has received increasing attention, including establishment of the Air Quality Management Commission recently. But others such as Pune, Kolkata and Mumbai face similar challenges due to increasing urban sprawl. Recent AQI numbers from Mumbai corroborate this conclusion.
Therefore, we need systemic pan-India solutions rather than focussing on a few cities. Two options exist to address the challenge. Mitigate at source – move away from fossil fuels to renewable energy or CNG/PNG. Second, end of pipe abatement – trap pollutants emitted by industries, power plants, transport.
Encouragingly, rapid expansion of cheap renewable energy has generated the institutional and corporate impetus to create new markets for electricity. Expanding public transport via electric mobility is thus a win-win strategy to absorb the surplus generation capacity. The government launched a public transport electrification plan in 2015, recast in 2019 (FAME II). It targets providing 7,000 electric buses to 100 cities with a 40% capital cost. Scaling the scheme can transform public transport.
A 2017 Copenhagen Consensus Center study for Vijayawada estimated that every rupee invested in e-buses returned 4X benefits. Metro and suburban rail – Delhi and Mumbai for example – further enhance benefits by deploying e-buses for last mile connectivity. There’s a strong case to prioritise and expand FAME II to provide 50,000 e-buses in large metros.
Emissions from transport must abate for India to meet its NDC target. Increasing the share of public transport (to 50%) and non-motorised (walking and bicycles) transport will be key enablers. This is so because even “green” private vehicles impose social cost by crowding out cyclists and pedestrians.
Can cities finance this transition? Rationalisation and compliance can substantially increase property tax revenues. Cities such as Bengaluru and Jaipur collect just 16% and 5% respectively of the due revenue (Economic Survey 2017). Bond financing, used sparingly, is another option. Recent evidence (Pune, Hyderabad, Lucknow) validates their potential. Bond issuances also require enhanced transparency, accountability and fiscal discipline, desired objectives on their own.
Private investments follow public leads. Centre can champion “green mobility” by enabling public investments. SECI and EESL have demonstrated scaling potential through standardisation and bulk procurement. They can partner cities and private sector to develop innovative business models.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal resulted in 10 million households giving up cooking gas subsidy. Same “Modi Magic” can “crowd-fund” 20% of the cost by appealing to well-off urbanites. Balance can be split between the Centre and states. The financial cost of clean air is Rs 5-6 per citizen per day in metros – half of Lancet estimated economic loss of Rs 12 per citizen per day, as cheap as mobile service and dare we say, a lot more necessary. The time is thus ripe for a new, urban Go-Green movement protecting polluters from themselves.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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