A brush with industry

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Friday 15 October 1999

It is clear to those who live, or even happen to visit Delhi, that the problem of pollution is extreme in this city. It needs immediate and drastic action so that the solutions can keep pace with increasing emissions from the ever-increasing fleet of vehicles.

It has been almost two years that this issue of air pollution was raised by environmentalists like us. We had also pointed out that dieselisation of the private vehicle fleet would only aggravate the situation. But what was industry's response. Their first reaction has been their last. Over a year ago, they publicly condemned any move to restrict diesel vehicles. Their argument was that diesel cars are increasing in many parts of the world like Europe and Japan, so why restrict them in Delhi.

The Centre for Science and Environment, with whom we work, is all too familiar with these issues. We know that diesel cars may have been increasing in Europe but that was because their governments were concerned about global warming and had promoted diesel by keeping the price low. According to some calculations, if the data is looked at in a particular way, diesel vehicles seem to contribute less to greenhouse gas emissions. But times have changed. Today, across the world, governments are responding to the evidence about the public health effects of diesel. In Germany, for instance, new rules make it impossible to drive diesel vehicles in certain regions on officially declared smoggy days. France has announced fiscal changes to reverse the share of diesel cars. The Netherlands, Sweden and the uk have all put into place policies to restrict the growth of diesel.

Recently, London's Financial Times reported that the local government of Tokyo city is asking its citizens to boycott diesel vehicles labelling them the "single biggest polluter of Tokyo's skies". New York and Los Angeles, both suffering from high particulate matter emissions, have agreed to phase in thousands of cng buses. California, which first raised the alarm, has now instituted emissions regulations that would make the sale of diesel engines virtually impossible. Australia has noted that diesel vehicles contribute 80 per cent of all the particulate emissions produced from vehicles in its cities. It is asking for urgent action to curb the growth of the diesel fleet.

None of these cities have the levels of particulate emissions as we do in Delhi. Public policy for Delhi, simply because of existing high levels, will have to be stronger and more effective.

What has been interesting is the tactics industry has adopted to deal with public information. The first position has been to completely deny any information that goes against what it wants to believe. The second position is to ignore all specific information -- not once has industry responded to the specific issues that have been raised. Its attitude, very much like an ostrich, has been to stick its head into the ground and never to enter into a dialogue.

But as time has gone by and public information about the health impact of diesel has gathered momentum, its tactics have become aggressive. First it tried its hand at intimidation -- sending us a legal notice for damages to the tune of a preposterously high amount a few days before a crucial Supreme Court hearing. We found out there is legal precedence that when companies seek high damages for defamation it can be viewed as a violation of human rights and an attempt to gag the freedom of the press in a democratic society.

This move failed. The company had to withdraw its notice saying that there was "no question of any proceeding against you".

Now the battle has moved underground. The most recent effort has been to hire an expensive public relations company to go on the offensive. A mysterious ngo has surfaced, calling itself Citizens Against Pollution, for which the public relations company is producing literature. The only advantage we have is that their effort -- which probably is costing a lot -- is ham-handed and obvious. Not only does the pr company quickly disown any responsibility when called up, by asking callers to get in touch with the industry that has hired it, but even the glossy produced for the Citizens Against Pollution shows its true colours. It begins with saying how the campaign against diesel is "disinformation" and ends its pamphlet by praising the diesel automobile. Now we have learnt that certain scientists are being called upon by the same pr company and being offered money to write articles support of diesel.

This war of knowledge versus money is bound to intensify in the days to come. While we cannot predict the outcome, we do hope that public health concerns will be vindicated by society -- the people who breathe the air of Delhi and suffer its consequences. But in this entire episode, one thing is very clear. Indian industry does not want an engagement with civil society. It only knows one way of doing things. We can only say that we wish them and all of us luck as we step into the next millennium.

-- Anil Agarwal

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