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Editorials/Opinions Analysis For UPSC 27 November 2023

  1. Fleet Electrification to Tackle Urban Pollution 
  2. Moulding the Himalayas needs Caution


Context:

The air quality index (AQI) in numerous cities across India has consistently reached the red zone on multiple occasions this year. This has posed significant health risks to millions of individuals, highlighting the urgent need to prioritize mitigation strategies.

Relevance:

GS3- Environment- Environmental Pollution and Degradation

Mains Question:

Discuss the need for truck fleet electrification in India. Also highlight the persisting challenges and suggest a way forward in this regard. (15 marks, 250 words).

Relevant Studies:

According to two influential studies focused on Delhi—Urban Emission (2015) and the TERI study (2018)—a substantial factor contributing to urban smog is the presence of PM2.5 and PM10 pollution, primarily stemming from the transport and construction sectors.

Truck Fleet in India:

  • The number of trucks on the road is steadily rising, with approximately 900,000 new trucks being added to India’s existing fleet of 7 million trucks each year.
  • India transports more than 2 trillion tonne-kilometers of freight by trucks annually. These trucks, which make up over 70 lakh in total, account for more than a quarter of India’s oil imports and contribute to over 90% of CO2 emissions from road transport.
  • As the road network continues to expand in a developing economy, the growth in the truck fleet is expected to persist.
  • If all these new trucks continue to rely on diesel-powered internal combustion engines, as is currently the case, it will lead to a significant increase in PM2.5 pollution in our cities.

Need of Electrification of Truck Fleet in India:

  • In the current urgent scenario, where every breath matters, swift deployment of solutions is crucial. The recent call for 7,750 electric trucks in India by 2030, if realized, could save over 800 billion liters of diesel until 2050.
  • The need of the hour is a pipeline of financially viable projects, well-structured to attract private and institutional capital at a ratio of at least six rupees for every rupee of public investment.
  • Although achieving more than 50% electrification in three-wheelers is a significant accomplishment for India’s 2070 net zero agenda, the decarbonization of the transport sector must be spearheaded by the electrification of trucks.

Challenges in Truck Fleet Electrification in India:

  • The electric vehicle penetration rate on Indian roads has surpassed 6%, but the adoption of electric trucks faces challenges such as high upfront costs and limitations in charging infrastructure.
  • While the government is commendably pushing for the electrification of bus fleets and setting electrification targets for bus aggregators, there is a need to broaden the focus to include diesel trucks and dust mitigation.
  • With the Indian truck fleet projected to reach 1.7 crore by 2050, there is a pressing need to accelerate the transition to electric trucks. Relying solely on public funding is insufficient to meet the required transformational scale.
  • These are significant sources of particulate matter (PM) that demand immediate attention, considering both energy security and sustainability perspectives.
  • The upfront cost of a mid-range electric truck is approximately ₹1.5 crore compared to about ₹40 lakh for a diesel truck. Additionally, the logistical costs of charging pose significant hurdles.

Way Forward:

  • To pave the way for green freight corridors, designating certain expressways and national highways as such would serve as a demonstrative step in the country.
  • Accelerating feasibility studies, demand aggregation, ensuring supplier readiness, and implementing a prudent risk allocation strategy are essential for establishing these green freight corridors in India.
  • The initial focus could be on small stretches of 500 kilometers along routes with heavy truck traffic. Achieving this will require innovative financial instruments, incentives for charging infrastructure, support for entrepreneurial initiatives, and a regulatory environment conducive to progress in truck electrification in the country.

Conclusion:

Fortunately, rail freight transportation in India has already transitioned to electric power. However, this electrification covers only around 20% of the total freight transported in the country. Recognizing the urgency of concerted efforts is crucial if we aspire to breathe new life into our cities.



Context:

As efforts to rescue 41 workers trapped in a tunnel near Silkyara in Uttarkashi, Uttarakhand, remain weeks away from completion, concerns arise once again about the trajectory of infrastructure development in the Himalayas. The question arises whether the current approach of expanding roads, extensive construction of hydropower projects, and an unchecked emphasis on tourism truly constitute a sustainable model of development.

Relevance:

GS-1

  • Important Geophysical Phenomena
  • Water Resources
  • Physical Geography

GS-3

  • Conservation
  • Environmental Pollution and Degradation
  • Biodiversity Hotspots

Mains Question:

The Uttarkashi tunnel collapse has thrown light on the major flaws in the infrastructure development in the Indian Himalayan Region. Comment. (10 marks, 150 words).

Issues in the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR):

The ongoing Char Dham Project, involving the construction of all-weather roads by the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) in Uttarakhand to connect the religious pilgrimages of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Badrinath, and Kedarnath, highlights two major issues in the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR).

  • One crucial aspect is the development model itself and, specifically, determining the carrying capacity of the IHR.
  • Equally important are the procedures for seeking environmental clearances, the disregard for safety protocols, and the need for a new approach to architecture for constructing and monitoring infrastructure projects in the region, if they are deemed necessary.

Faults in the current model of development of IHR:

Lack of consideration of the geographical domains:

  • A significant issue with this undertaking lies in the failure to acknowledge that the Himalayas constitute the youngest mountain range and are still evolving.
  • Geological and geotechnical studies unequivocally indicate the precarious nature of this project, marked by inherent dangers leading to fatalities.
  • The Main Central Thrust of the Himalayas, passing a few kilometers north of the incident site, has been identified by scientists as an area highly susceptible to earthquakes, featuring frictional shear rocks. Constructing within this zone is inherently perilous.
  • The National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) has recently announced plans to conduct a thorough inspection of 29 tunnels across the country to enhance safety and prevent accidents. It is paradoxical that such enlightenment occurs only when the lives of 41 workers are jeopardized, exposing the habitual negligence and inactivity of the bureaucracy.

Construction and Projects:

  • The unwarranted haste in executing constructions and projects in the region has resulted in neglecting even the fundamental principles of mountain construction codes.
  • The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has not been treated with due seriousness. For instance, the Char Dham Project, spanning approximately 900 km, should ideally undergo a single EIA.
  • However, the project was divided into 53 sections, allowing for a less comprehensive assessment within a smaller region. This fragmentation reduces the perceived impact compared to evaluating the project as a whole ecosystem spanning 900 km.

Changes happening in the IHR:

  • The IHR is currently undergoing a transformative phase, and unfortunately, the driving force behind this transformation stems from new geographies.
  • There are spatial and temporal changes that extend beyond the realms of Himalayan aesthetics, culture, and architectural typologies.
  • Mere integration with broader regions is not a sustainable approach. Month after month, the IHR is confronted with monumental and irreversible tragedies.

Efforts and Initiatives in this regard:

  • The Supreme Court of India has already taken cognizance of the matter regarding carrying capacity in the Himalayas. It is now imperative for the apex court to actively promote a dialogue on this issue.
  • In the current context, the construction of the Atal tunnel in the Kullu, Lahaul & Spiti districts of Himachal Pradesh is noteworthy.
  • The construction company involved was exceptionally diligent in implementing safety measures, resulting in no reported casualties during the construction process. Workers were not permitted to enter the tunnel unless all safety protocols were meticulously followed and verified.

Way Forward:

  • Carrying capacity should not be confined solely to the number of people an ecosystem can support; it must also encompass the overall carrying capacity of the IHR from an infrastructure perspective.
  • Questions need to be addressed, such as how many hydropower projects, the extent of tourism, the permissible number of roads, and the acceptable degree of road widening.
  • Additionally, considerations should be made regarding the limits on mountain excavation and the disposal of debris into water ecosystems.
  • There is a need to adopt international safety protocols and monitoring procedures. A new legislative framework, allowing for public oversight of these projects and ensuring the inclusion of geological experts at every stage, is essential.
  • Local communities should play a vital role in these monitoring structures, adhering to stringent protocols. Additionally, civil society groups and community-driven organizations should be actively involved.

Conclusion:

Regarding the Himalayas, the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) must recognize that they are constructing roads on actual soil and mountains, not merely on drawing boards in their offices. Both the Border Roads Organization (BRO) and the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) adhere to better construction protocols, incorporating a specific period for stability. Conversely, the undue emphasis on meeting targets without ensuring stability and safety standards is exacerbating the region’s susceptibility to disasters.


March 2024
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