The publication of a new book by the Centre for Science & Environment (CSE) is always something to look forward to, as much because of new data as fresh perspectives with which to view problems and seek solutions. In this respect, The Leapfrog Factor: Clearing the Air in Asian Cities (444 pages) does not disappoint.

As CSE's Anumita Roychowdhry, who has doggedly been tracking air pollution in Delhi and other Indian cities, noted at the release of the book in Mumbai in May, its interest began with its 1996 study, titled Slow Murder. Indeed, this title harks back to 1925 when US petrol companies first introduced lead in order to reduce the knocking in engines. Queried about the side-effects of doing so (not by environmentalists, who had not yet been born then!), the companies characteristically replied that the lead was in such minute amounts that it would cause no damage. However, singly, lead has done more to cause brain damage and other ailments – particularly to children – than almost any other additive of its kind over these decades.

In more than half the cities surveyed in The Leapfrog Factor, suspended particulate matter levels were critical due to the rise in number of vehicles and abysmal public transport. Raipur topped the list.

The Leapfrog Factor: Clearing the Air in Asian Cities is available at

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Perhaps the most frightening slide Roychowdhry showed was one of a lung of a patient from Delhi, courtesy surgeon Naresh Trehan, which was horribly discoloured. This was contrasted with that of a patient from Himachal Pradesh, where the air is obviously far cleaner, which remained a healthy red. As the CSE terms it, this is "capital punishment" of the most insidious and invisible kind. As an inveterate campaigner on environmental issues, a CSE poster reads: "Roll down the window of your bullet-proof car, Mr Prime Minister; the security threat is not the gun, it's the air of Delhi." Try telling that to MPs!

Caught in one of those interminable queues to obtain a Pollution Control Certificate for his vehicle in Delhi years ago, CSE's intrepid late founder Anil Agrawal found himself wondering what was causing the contamination of the air and what purpose the certificate served. The first concern was lack of data. At the time, the CSE found, the capital's vehicles caused 65% of the pollution, the three thermal stations 17%, industries 12%, while the balance presumably came from woodstoves and other smaller sources. Roychowdhry cited these numbers cited at the launch of The Leapfrog Factor.

The CSE has now calculated "the price of wealth". In 20 years between 1975 and 1995, the country's GDP more than doubled, while the vehicular pollution load went up eight times and the industrial load four-fold. With its penchant for homing in on the telling fact, the CSE points out that in the nation's capital, one person dies every hour due to air pollution.

On the flip side, thanks to the intervention of the Supreme Court, which acted suo moto a decade ago, the air in the capital is easier to breathe these days. The notorious "inversions" are much less frequent in winters. Low-sulphur fuels and petrol with only 1% benzene have been introduced. Delhi has since 2000 enforced Euro II emission standards, five years ahead of schedule, and Euro III in 2005. But, most significantly, and CSE and its intrepid founder, the late Anil Agarwal, are largely responsible for this. Delhi has implemented the largest ever CNG switch in the world for public vehicles. More than 1 lakh vehicles have been shifted to this clean fuel in five years. Yet another first is the switch-over by 10,000 buses to CNG, which has won the CSE global recognition, as Agarwal had served on the committee set up by the apex court.

The results are there for everyone to see. Sulphur dioxide levels have dipped steadily since 1998; carbon monoxide has shown an even more precipitate decline, despite the number of vehicles growing. Suspended particulate matter (SPM) levels have stabilised but are still high. But, says CSE, the time has come for a new 'leapfrog' strategy, instead of these incremental returns, in the country as a whole.

According to CSE, the only way out of this impasse is to "reinvent the idea of mobility" itself. This would include improving public transport to leverage change. In Delhi, the metro has a high capital cost but the city's lay-out is better suited to bus priority lanes and high capacity busways, which are far cheaper. Ironically, taxes are more than twice as much, per vehicle-km, on buses as they are for private cars. There is also need for leapfrogging emissions and fuel standards and setting new levels, rather than perpetually lagging behind Euro norms. Two-wheeler emissions should also improve and alternative fuels promoted, feels the CSE.

How other cities fare

In more than half the cities surveyed in The Leapfrog Factor, the SPM levels were critical due to the rise in number of vehicles and abysmal public transport. Raipur topped the list.

Mumbai shows an overall downward trend in pollution levels, thanks to the introduction of Euro II and Euro III norms, expansion of CNG (which has now overtaken petrol in volume sales, though diesel rules the roost) and the boon of being a coastal city. However, private vehicle registration is expected to more than double the 1991 levels. In the larger metropolitan area (soon to be among the world's most populous), the number of private vehicles per 1,000 persons is expected to increase from 49 in 1991 to 61 by 2011, while the share of public transport may decline from a current 88% to 85% of commuters.

Even a city like Pune, which has 3.7 million people, indicates the direction that cities are heading. It has 8 lakh vehicles of all kinds, with a high proportion of two-wheelers, and adds 10,000 vehicles every month, according to CSE.

A couple of decades ago, when I was helping conceive a 'State of India's Urban Environment' for CSE, Pune was to figure as one of the few bicycle cities on the country, which seems risible these days. According to Ajay Ozha, who heads the air quality management cell of Pune, the city's SPM levels are also rising from the current 37,000 tonnes a year because of dust from paved roads, which contribute 60% of the load. Incidentally, in a report late last year, The Ecologist (UK) pointed to SPM generated by the wear and tear of tyres, which has seldom, if ever, been taken into account here.

In a press release issued at the launch of The Leapfrog Factor, CSE says that India's technology roadmap remains on hold, largely because refineries and the automobile industry are obstructing it and the government remains apathetic. "Industry is avoiding radical transition to advanced technology solutions. Tax policies can cushion the costs of this transition, but the government does not care," notes CSE. The release proceeds to issue a dire warning: "India cannot afford the threat of dieselisation either. Diesel vehicles will dominate nearly 50% of new car sales in the country by 2010. Toxic diesel particulates are carcinogens."

Dirty diesel

At the book launch, Roychowdhry also talked about how the Delhi government had planned to impose a cess on diesel cars. However, Ratan Tata -- the Tatas have massive investments in diesel vehicles -- met Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit and this move was thwarted, she said. In Mumbai too, out of some 650 new BEST (Bombay Electricity Supply Company) buses, the majority are run on diesel. It is time that the authorities took note of how the air in cities is being poisoned, and no one is immune to these toxic substances, said Roychowdhry.

Despite the overwhelming evidence against diesel, the automobile industry persists in turning a blind eye to the hazards of this dirty fuel. It spreads the canard that vehicles are using low-sulphur diesel (LSD) of the kind that is popular in Europe. However, Europe uses ultra-low-sulphur diesel (ULSD), which is not available in India.

This is the first time that anyone has looked holistically at the contribution of transport to the pollution in our cities and the range of environmental, economic, social and technical solutions that are available. The Leapfrog Factor is an excellent reference book on this contentious subject.