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Miffed with the greens

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Oct 15, 1999 | From the print edition
Conscious of the pressure upon them, representatives of industry discuss environmental matters at length in the automobile manufacturers' annual meet

-- in the recently-held annual meeting of the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers ( siam ), the industry who's who was present in full strength to vent their anger against environmentalists, who have been coaxing them to meet tighter emission standards at the earliest. Venu Srinivasan, siam president and chief executive officer ( ceo ) tvs Suzuki, while addressing the gathering said: "The auto industry knows its responsibility towards protection of the environment. Yet, we are unfairly being accused of not taking the matter seriously by non-governmental organisations. We have been accused of being reactive and not proactive."

The industry representatives grumbled that pressures like court hearings and public interest litigations ( pil s) are only "knee-jerk reactions of society. Court hearings and pil s are not the answer to the problems. What the automobile sector needs is a long-term policy to come up with a long-term solution to the problem". The excuse was that since India has got into the business of emission regulations so late -- in 1989 -- industry would need sufficient time to overcome the lag.

Nobody asked why the industry never developed, on its own, a time-bound development plan earlier to address the emission issues. On the contrary, all evidence points towards fierce resistance from the industry towards progressive tightening of 1996 and 2000 norms and how they actually succeeded in diluting the norms which were finally notified. The sc order only says the industry can be pushed to clean up their act fast. It is even more unacceptable in view of the submission from Subodh Bhargava Group chairman and ceo Eicher Motor Ltd, "Before 1991, all the decisions regarding the auto sector was being taken by the government. After 1991 the sector has started taking up its responsibilities seriously and is now taking decision for its growth."

Now 10 years down the line, Ajit Kumar, secretary, ministry of industry, prodded the industry to chalk out a long-term strategy to meet the requirements of all sections of society in the meeting. "We have asked siam to make a 10-15 year plan which can be beneficial for all quarters of the industry. It would also chalk out a plan to cut down the emissions by improving technologies and infrastructure," said Kumar.

This time the industry representatives were fully-conscious of the environmental pressures on them and their reaction featured in everything they said or wrote on this occasion. Clearly they were pleading for more time to access state-of-the-art technology. Their major grouse was: "The media has access to the Internet, the latest information technology and the latest information regarding automobile technology. On the other side, we have the auto industry just freed from the fetters of licensing and controls. There is bound to be a difference in the two technologies. The auto industry should be given time to catch up with the latest technology in the world."

The inconsistency between the claim of prosperity as made by Subodh Bhargava -- that the auto industry is the highest contributor to the gdp -- and why industry has failed to access the latest technology despite the much-touted liberalisation process went completely unnoticed.

The opportunity was not missed to use the forum to espouse diesel as the fuel of the future. Documents highlighting the fuel-saving advantages of diesel vehicles were circulated widely. It is unfortunate that the Indian automobile industry should be seen so keen to transplant the concerns over global warming and its solutions from the West to India without putting the local concerns over urban smog in the right perspective and find solutions for it.

It almost looks comical for siam to highlight, in its newsletter distributed on the occasion, the agenda for "clean air in Europe" from World Fuel Conference and quote, " co 2 is the problem of next century, and we have made little progress so far." The confused environmental agenda of the Indian automobile industry thus stands out. While almost all towns and cities of India are reeling under severe particulate pollution load, they are focusing on a pollutant which is not even a priority in India.

Therefore it sounded almost metaphoric when R Seshasayee, vice-president of siam and md Ashok Leyland said, "Automobile industry is today at the crossroads. Unfortunately, in India, most things have been at the crossroads or they have been at the take-off stage or on the runway. In our case, we have to get our act together very fast. If we remain standing at the crossroads, we will be run over by the very cars we have helped manufacture."

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