MIT GOV/LAB is committed to supporting MIT graduate students conducting original field research and data collection on MIT GOV/LAB topics and themes of interest. One way we support students is through our seed grant program that enables students to conduct their research. 

Anum Mustafa is one of our Graduate Research Fellows, researching why regulations related to air quality in South Asia are often poorly implemented. We spoke with Anum about her exploratory field work in Pakistan for her dissertation over the summer of 2022.

MIT GOV/LAB: You’re studying air pollution in South Asia, specifically Pakistan. What prompted you to research this, and why is this an important problem?

Anum: The main motivation is that rising levels of air pollution have become a big public health crisis in South Asia. Among the fifty most polluted cities of the world in 2020, thirty-five are in India, five are in Pakistan and two are in Bangladesh. Unfortunately, the latest research shows that the risks from air pollution are far greater than previously understood. One in eight deaths globally is caused by air pollution – it is the largest single environmental health risk, according to the UN

There is also an important link between air pollution and the broader, global climate change problem. For example, the transport sector is responsible for about 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions and is also the main contributor to air pollution in South Asian cities. 

At the same time, if you look up the policy framework to tackle air pollution in South Asia, governments have many regulations targeting industries, vehicle owners, small factories, farmers, so I became interested in why these regulations are not properly implemented. 

MIT GOV/LAB: You look at electric vehicles (EV) as one possible technology that could help with a transition to cleaner air in South Asia. But EV adoption has been slower than anticipated even in more developed parts of the world due to cost and charging infrastructure barriers. Is it really a realistic future for developing countries like Pakistan?

Anum: Currently, electric vehicles are not a significant share of automobiles on the road in any South Asian country. Even in India, the South Asian government that has the most comprehensive set of incentives, actual ownership numbers are around 2% at the moment. But they are expected to rise sharply over the coming decade. There is no reason that electric vehicles cannot have a large share of the market in the coming years for Pakistan also, especially with the right policy incentives.

An average customer in India or Pakistan is much more price sensitive compared to one in Europe or America. An electric vehicle is currently much more expensive than a traditional fossil fuel based vehicle. However, battery costs have fallen from $10,000/KWh in 2010 to about $150 KWh/today and are expected to keep falling to below $100/KWh, so this price premium will likely disappear in the near future. 

Skeptics also point to the charging infrastructure and electricity requirements. But again, these are not insurmountable problems, and the policy infrastructure will determine how quickly and smoothly the transition happens.

I don’t think that electric vehicles are the silver bullet to the dirty air problem, but I do think it is a feasible technology whose merits should be seriously debated. Unfortunately, instead of substantive debates, much of the policy debates are being driven by the preferred positions of different manufacturers.

Left: A locally manufactured electric 2-wheeler. Many local companies have started manufacturing electric 2 and 3-wheelers using imported batteries. Right: A model battery-swap station for an electric 3-wheeler. One business model to charge smaller vehicles is to have stations where empty batteries can be swapped for charged ones. (Anum Mustafa, captured during fieldwork in Lahore, summer 2022).

MIT GOV/LAB: So how would you evaluate the policy infrastructure in place for EVs in Pakistan, if there is one?

Anum: The government has an electric vehicle policy, where the primary policy instruments are tax breaks for the import of EV parts. But active contestation has narrowed the scope of this policy over time. During my fieldwork I traced the policy making process as it actually unfolded through official meeting minutes and in interviews with policy making elites. 

One striking feature of the policy process is the prolonged struggle over who has ownership of the policy making process, as opposed to debate on the actual content of the policies. The initial electric vehicle policy draft was proposed by the Climate Change ministry in 2019, but the Industries ministry strongly objected to their involvement. Automobile policy has generally been the domain of one of its specialised agencies, where the key players of the automobile industry are represented. Jointly leading the policy effort with the Climate Change ministry means sharing agenda-setting power.

This is important because any transition to electric vehicles will create new winners and losers. The incumbent players in Pakistan are not very enthusiastic about a transition to electric vehicles. For example, Indus Motors which is a joint venture between Toyota and a local conglomerate, has advocated for a shift to hybrid vehicles. Suzuki, another Japanese subsidiary, has also endorsed this position. They have tried to narrow the scope and ambition of policy proposals over time.

MIT GOV/LAB: Interesting, can you say a bit more about what you did during your fieldwork to investigate the role of special interest groups and the implementation of the EV policy, and how the seed grant was able to support your dissertation work?

The field work involved a lot of interviews with policy makers who make policies regulating air quality, especially for the transport sector. It also involved going over policy drafts to trace how they changed over time and looking at meeting minutes to see how discussions unfolded.

The seed grant was instrumental in making it all happen. For example, it allowed me to hire a couple of research assistants who helped in transcribing the interviews and in doing some secondary research. It also allowed me to travel around Lahore conducting interviews.

MIT GOV/LAB: How do you like to spend your free time when you’re not busy with research work?

I really enjoy running, hiking and yoga. Along the Charles river and along the Somerville bike path are a couple of my favourite places to run in the Cambridge area.

Photo: Anum testing out a locally manufactured electric 3-wheeler (Credit: Naved Arshad).