Cosmetic concern

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Sunday 15 July 2001

Petroleum minister Ram Naik typifies everything that is wrong with our political system today -- a system which formulates public policies not because of public good but because of political lobbies. In the last few days, newspapers have carried articles by Ram Naik praising the use of ethanol as a blend for petrol and possibly even for diesel. This step will help sugar farmers, the sugar industry, foreign exchange outflows (by cutting down on imports) and will also be environment-friendly, Naik tells us as glibly as he can. Naik talks about Brazil having used ethanol in petrol since 1931. So why did the government not find all these virtues in ethanol before? Naik tells us that four committees and six technical studies have been at the subject since 1977. So what has changed so suddenly? Naik's foresight? The answer is simple: The sugar lobby has found a new ally in the Sangh Parivar which has been breathing down the necks of the petroleum ministry. And Naik and his babus have basically caved in to this lobby. Not that this good policy decision was taken on the basis of good judgement. Just convenient politics. At an official meeting, long before Naik decided to go public on ethanol, a joint secretary admitted that the use of ethanol now looked inevitable "because of the power of the sugar lobby".

About six months ago, we had supported the use of ethanol in petrol because of environmental and public health reasons but had run into a wall. Unleaded, low benzene petrol needs an oxygenate to help the fuel burn smoothly. An oxygenate that Indian public sector oil companies, which have nothing but disdain for public health, are using is methyl tertiary butyl ether ( mtbe) . This substance has an extraordinary capacity to travel through groundwater. A teaspoon of mtbe put in an Olympic size swimming pool will make it stink within seconds. It has also been found to be a carcinogen in animals. Since its use started in the us nearly ten years ago, thousands of wells supplying drinking water have been contaminated with mtbe . California is the worst affected state - it uses the maximum petrol -- and it was the first to ban the use of mtbe and now the Clean Air Act is being amended to ban it across the country. At a time when usa is banning mtbe , Indian public sector companies, with the blessings of the petroleum ministry babus, are promoting its use. This is what you call foresight in Indian babudom.

The Centre for Science and Environment, therefore, raised this issue with the Ministry of Environment, especially as groundwater is a very important source of drinking water in India, and increasingly so even in cities. The then secretary of the ministry, Vishwanath Anand, asked us to make a presentation. The people present included the secretary himself, two additional secretaries, several joint secretaries and the chairperson of the Central Pollution Control Board. The meeting unanimously decided to recommend a ban on mtbe and use of ethanol, an excellent oxygenate which is being contemplated also for use in the us in place of mtbe . But the petroleum ministry dismissed the letter from the ministry of environment and continues to allow the use of mtbe . This further confirmed the belief, commonly shared by most people, that the Indian government does not function and public health can only be protected by court intervention.

So what was the point of resistance? The price of ethanol and its uncertainty. At the moment, petrol prices are high so ethanol can compete -- petrol prices need to be above Rs 20 per litre to allow ethanol blending at competitive prices -- but what happens in the future? In addition, the petroleum babus argued that the price of mtbe is cheaper than ethanol and that the sugar industry could reduce prices further and was wanting to make a fast buck. Thus, for price reasons, the ministry was against the use of ethanol and was totally disregarding any concern for public health. This was less than six months ago. But now there is a somersault and Naik is even talking about the possibility of blending ethanol with the lowly-priced diesel to save foreign exchange. Won't this increase the price of holy diesel, which no politician wants to touch?

It's amazing that all these wonderful arguments of saving foreign exchange and helping sugar farmers were as valid even then but it's just that the Sangh Parivar has now got into action as elections in Uttar Pradesh are nearing. Now the same ethanol has become so virtuous that minister Naik has to sing paeans about it himself in signed articles in newspapers. Good decision but for wrong reasons. And mtbe continues to be used. If this be the quality of leaders that Indian democracy is going to throw up, then God bless this billion people country called India.

It really galls me to read Naik writing that "The added advantage of ethanol is that it is a renewable source of energy and also environment-friendly." This coming from a man whose ministry has done everything to sabotage the Supreme Court order to move Delhi's buses to cng . Why can't Naik just be honest and say that ethanol use today is politically-friendly rather than giving us all this junk about farmer-friendliness and environment-friendliness which he cares two hoots about? But then when were politicians known for being straightforward.

-- Anil Agarwal

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