In a recent debate on severe air pollution in Delhi and northern India in a television channel, a farmer from Punjab asked: Instead of union government spending Rs 1 lakh crore for developing 500 km of high speed rail, why don’t it give Rs 5,000 crore every year as subsidy for the kharif paddy farmers in Punjab to stop them from burning the stubble? This question was based on the notion that providing Rs 5,000 crore every year as subsidy could mitigate the problem of air pollution, whereas developing HSR does not do anything to improve the air quality.
There are essentially two major flaws in the notion that formed the basis of this question. The first flaw is on funding for the HSR project. With 80 per cent of the total cost of the project coming from Japan as financial aid with 0.1 per cent interest rate, the union government’s share in the HSR project is only about Rs 10,000 crore spread over seven years, accounting for about Rs 1,500 crore per year. The funding from union government in HSR project is of token value and not large enough to support all the subsidies that are demanded at the drop of the hat.
The second flaw is that the question did not account the huge negative externalities that has been caused by the kharif paddy crop in Punjab for the last three decades. The kharif paddy crop cultivated between July and October every year in Punjab has been causing huge ecological damage to the state of Punjab in terms of depleted groundwater table, 3,000 MW of installed thermal power capacity to cater to pump sets exclusively for kharif paddy crop and the associated carbon emission and air pollution. This is in addition to the bleeding of Punjab’s government exchequer to the tune of Rs 5,000 crore every year. An additional Rs 5,000 crore either from the state exchequer or union’s exchequer may mitigate Delhi’s air pollution to a limited extent, but would hasten up the hara-kiri path chosen by the Punjab government and kharif paddy farmers of Punjab in making Punjab a desert.
Air pollution in India is a national problem, as reported by Greenpeace, which stated that 90 per cent of the cities in India had pollution levels over prescribed standards. So, the strategy for reducing air pollution must be at the national level so that the air pollution levels don’t deteriorate further let alone improve. Transport, both passenger and freight, is the prominent contributor to environmental degradation, as vouched by all studies.
There are at least two dimensions to the impact of transport on environment. They are global warming and local air pollution. The key contributor to global warming is the emission of CO2 — 40 per cent of CO2 will remain in the atmosphere for 100 years and 20 per cent will remain for 1,000 years, while 10 per cent will take 10,000 years to disappear. Global warming would destroy the ecosystems and organisms, raises the sea level, submerging the coastal areas, coastal cities and islands, partly or fully, as they have a long-standing effect on ecology. CO2 is generated from the burning of fossil fuels like crude oil products and coal.
Although local air pollution is generated from various sources, the two key contributors are pollution from diesel and petrol vehicles and road dust. The pollutants that contribute to air pollution are essentially particulate matter (PM) 10, particulate matter (PM) 2.5, NOX (nitrogen oxide), SO2 (sulphur dioxide), CO (carbon mono oxide) and HC (hydrocarbon), which causes respiratory diseases, cancer and cardio vascular diseases.
The mammoth projects like dedicated freight corridor that could shift both passenger and freight transport on a large scale towards modes that could use non fossil fuel is the strategic way forward and not tinkering solutions like odd-even scheme or sprinkling water on the roads. Whether it is dedicated freight corridors, which could shift long distance freight transport from road to rail on a mammoth scale or high speed rail which could shift medium to long distance passenger transport from air and road to rail on a mammoth scale, which could source the fuel from non fossil source of electricity, would mitigate global warming and air pollution simultaneously.
The western dedicated freight corridor connecting Dadri near Delhi to JNPT in Mumbai and eastern dedicated freight corridor connecting Ludhiana in Punjab to Dankuni in West Bengal is already under progress and expected to be completed by 2020. On the passenger transport front, development of HSR for about 10,000 km is a strategic way forward to reduce CO2 emission and local air pollution, at one go. HSR project of 500 km between Ahmedabad and Mumbai is the first endeavour in that direction, provided the electricity is sourced from non-fossil energy forms. Given the push union government and state governments have been giving for solar power generation and the cost of solar electricity becoming cheaper than even the coal based electricity in the recent past, the expectation of reduction in carbon emission and air pollution from DFC and HSR is not unrealistic.
However, the contribution of HSR in mitigating climate change and local air pollution depends on how much ridership the HSR could get from air and road, the diesel and petrol transport modes. Because, air mode creates the maximum ecological damage of 417gm of CO2 emission per passenger/km, followed by car with 51gm per passenger/km and bus with 5 gm per passenger/km, whereas the electric-hauled rail (both HSR and conventional train) creates no ecological damage, if the electric power is sourced from non-fossil fuel like solar power, as there is no CO2 emission at all. The diesel and petrol that is used to propel air and passenger road transport vehicles and the road dust emanates from the movement of road transport passenger vehicles also contribute significantly to the various pollutants of local air pollution.
It was estimated by Japan Internal Cooperative Agency in its feasibility report that, HSR between Ahmedabad and Mumbai would pull 15,000, 8,000 and 11,000 passengers every day from car, air and bus respectively in 2023, the first year of operation and 1,08,000, 44,000 and 39,000 passengers every day from car, air and bus respectively in 2053. It is true that with improvement in emission norms like adoption of Bharat Stage VI, the contribution for air pollution from diesel and petrol would decrease further. However, the growth in the number of diesel and petrol vehicles would nullify the reduction per vehicle. The modal shift of passengers from petrol and diesel modes to HSR would help India in avoiding further detrimental of air quality. JICA report also estimated that the development of HSR between Ahmedabad and Mumbai would save 5.7 million tonnes of CO2 emissions between 2023 and 2053.
The remedy to tackle climate change and air pollution is not to make hue and cry when air pollution deteriorates to severe level at various parts of the country and keep mum when air pollution reaches poor or moderate levels. The systematic development of transport modes that uses lesser fossil fuels is the sustained solution for both climate change and air pollution problem and development of DFC and HSR is a strategic move of arriving at this sustained solution.
(The writer is an independent consultant and researcher )