A dinosaur mindset

By Sunita Narain
Published: Friday 15 February 2002

What do you say when a Cabinet minister -- an articulate and vocal one at that -- refuses to appear on a television panel to discuss a serious public policy issue with you? Ram Naik, the Union minister of petroleum and natural gas and I were invited by a private television network to discuss the A R Mashelkar committee report on auto fuel policy. Naik threw a fit. The compromise was that he would go first, to defend the report and then I would go on air to discuss its implications on public health and pollution control policies. Interestingly, and significantly, he did wait in the studio to hear my comments.

The Mashelkar committee was set up by Naik days before the last deadline of the Supreme Court to phase out diesel buses in Delhi was due. It is not surprising that the "interim" report of the committee has been released just a month before the next deadline is due to expire. And equally unsurprising, therefore, is that the government has shown extraordinary diligence and speed in getting this "interim" report passed by the Union cabinet and now plans to take its recommendations to the court.

But without getting into discussion on the (mal) intentions of the government, let us discuss its key recommendations and why they completely miss the point that the issue is not auto-fuel per se , but the strategy needed to get us clean air.

Firstly, the report says that we should not dictate technologies but only mandate fuel and emission norms. Why would anyone disagree with such words of wisdom? But such sagacity would need two qualifications. One, fuel quality and auto emission targets would help us meet air quality targets. And two, if the air quality standards were not met and we have unhealthy air, someone would be held accountable and taken to task. In the us, for instance, the Clean Air Act, lays down penalties which the federal government can impose on state governments when they fail to comply with air quality norms. We have nothing of the kind. Instead we have critically polluted cities and governments who can get away with slow murder.

Therefore, we can agree that norms should dictate policy, if the norms set by the government have any meaning on air quality. On the other hand, Mashelkar's committee's road map for fuel quality would take us straight to hell. The issue was to safeguard public health. The strategy adopted by Mashelkar is to make incremental gains -- move from Euro ii equivalent norms, which we have today in a few metros like Delhi, to Euro iii by 2005. The rest of the country, irrespective of how polluted the city is, would move from Euro i to Euro iii by 2010.

This will be deadly. The problem is that we introduced emission norms for vehicles very late. It is only in 2000 that the country got emission norms equivalent to Euro i, which were introduced in Europe in 1992. Delhi was fortunate to get Euro ii , simply because the Supreme Court demanded that the norms should be advanced by five years, and the automobile and fuel companies had to deliver. But even this means that on Delhi's roads today, less than 18 per cent of the vehicles meet Euro i or Euro ii norms. And as we can do little to get rid of the huge numbers of old vehicles on the road, the only option is to phase in much better vehicles and fuel as fast as possible. It is for this reason that the slow and steady route is not an option for us, that is, if we are serious about clean air.

It is also well understood that the quantum jump in clean technology will come with the introduction of Euro iv norms, due in 2004 in Europe, as these are substantially more stringent. But leapfrogging needs guts, which the committee seems to have singularly lacked.

Secondly, the high-road that the committee has taken is to stipulate that we should agree on a multi-fuel option, and not single fuel (read compressed natural gas, cng). This was the bugbear of Naik, when he set up the committee as the government is desperate to wriggle out of the court order, which asks for public transport to be converted to cng.

But again, let me agree to disagree. Why would anyone disagree with a multi-fuel option as long as the fuel is clean fuel? But how can you device a strategy for pollution control based on dirty existing fuel that we have in our cities. For instance, if the Delhi and Union government renege on cng their gift to us would be to run buses on existing diesel fuel with Euro ii compliant vehicles -- incrementally better than what we have today. cng, on the other hand, gives us Euro iv equivalent emissions as far as deadly particulates are concerned.

What does baffle me is why the minister is so worried about engaging in a public debate on these issues? Many months ago, he had said that environmentalists who ask for clean fuel are "reactionary". We had then responded by calling him a dinosaur. But sadly his mindset has not become extinct. We can only hope one day it will.

-- Sunita Narain

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