One of the major crises that India faces is air pollution that even led to more than 2.3 million premature deaths in the country in 2019. Many cities have elevated concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), ozone, and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) which emanate from transportation and cause severe health issues. In such a scenario, there is scope to explore various policies that can be formulated at the local level to address transport-related emissions – two of which are low-emission zones (LEZs) and zero-emission zones (ZEZs).

LEZs are areas, mostly in cities, where access restrictions are applied to polluting motorised vehicles to improve air quality. Doing so reduces greenhouse gas emissions and congestion, as well as supports the switch to environmentally-friendly modes of transportation such as walking and cycling.  ZEZs go further by only allowing access to battery electric vehicles and fuel cell electric vehicles that have zero tailpipe emissions.

A 2016 report had found that the Central Motor Vehicle Act, 1988, the Environment Protection Act, 1986, and the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 have sufficient provisions to abate vehicular pollution in India, but there is little knowledge about it for its implementation at various levels. To identify the legal pathways for LEZs and ZEZs, a study was undertaken that took the case of Maharashtra at the state level and focused on Pune and Nashik.

Fig 1: Delhi’s Chandni Chowk Road was notified as 'non-motorised' zone

Different ways to implement LEZ, ZEZs

The study proposed that one of the ways to take this forward was that the Centre publishes a list of cities (or criteria for selecting cities) and declares them as LEZs or ZEZs. This provides guidelines like the overall framework for planning, implementation and general rules and regulations. It can also set up and delegate its powers to a special authority to manage implementation of LEZs and ZEZs.

Another way to go about it is for the central government to launch a national programme under which the national as well as the state pollution boards can be entrusted to work with the urban local bodies. The Centre can also come out with a guidance document describing the criteria for making cities eligible for implementation of LEZs and ZEZs, it said.

In addition, the state governments can declare their own cities or parts of them as LEZs or ZEZs after consulting with the state pollution control boards, apart from coming up with rules for operating certain vehicle types and fuel use in the zones. Another way that states can do this is by delegating powers to city governments or ULBs to prohibit polluting vehicles from specific areas.

The municipal corporations can also empower their  commissioners to impose such schemes on specified streets, along with their own rules. Another provision of implementing LEZ and ZEZ is under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 which empowers forest officers to “stop any public or private way in a reserved forest –  provided that substitute for the way . . . which the State Government deems to be reasonably convenient, already exists, or has been provided or constructed by the Forest-officer in lieu thereof”, according to the report.

Why LEZ, ZEZ matter

In Mumbai, India’s most populated city with more than 13 million inhabitants, PM2.5 emissions from road transport almost doubled in share to 31% of total PM emissions between fiscal years 2016–17 and 2019–20. Similarly in New Delhi, the national capital and second-most-populated city with more than 11 million inhabitants, the road transport sector contributed over 80% of nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions and 39% of PM2.5 emissions in 2016, the report said.

In 2015, New Delhi ranked 6th, Mumbai 27th, and Bengaluru 67th among cities worldwide in the number of premature deaths due to transport tailpipe PM2.5 and ozone emissions, according to the report. Therefore, LEZs and ZEZs which also promote e-mobility can greatly reduce this burden. The promotion of these zones, especially focussing on e-mobility can help reduce emissions considerably.

States promoting this concept

Delhi has various mechanisms to discourage polluting vehicles from entering the city. It phased out diesel buses and gasoline and diesel auto rickshaws and introduced compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles. The Delhi National Capital Region plans to phase out the operation of diesel auto rickshaws entirely by 2026. Additionally, diesel trucks and light-commercial vehicles are required to pay an environmental compensation charge to enter the city limits.

Gujarat has attempted an electric vehicle-only area in Kevadia wherein tourists park their internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles at designated parking lots from which they can travel into the area in shared electric three-wheelers and buses, according to the report.

The Municipal Corporation of Gurugram (MCG) also plans to launch e-rickshaws in the city and put into effect the city’s first electric three-wheelers zone (ETWZ), where diesel and CNG auto rickshaws will not be allowed to operate in the zone, the report said.