Farce of a crisis

 
By Anil Agarwal
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

My colleague and I write a regular column for a business daily in New Delhi. It was some time back that we wrote an article on the health impacts of diesel in the same daily only to receive a legal notice to the tune of Rs 100 crore from telco , a company which specialises in diesel vehicles. Even though this was followed by what was almost an apology we have found that a section of the auto industry has continued to indulge in disinformation about diesel and its environmental impacts. Ignoring all criticism, it goes ahead with its business of making cars for the rich to run on this cheap fuel, kept cheap for the sake of farmers. A policy that actually adds immensely to the fiscal deficit of the country, made worse every time a rich person switches from buying a car that runs on heavily taxed petrol to one that runs on non-taxed diesel.

Recently, a multinational firm based in Tamil Nadu, namely Ford, went to see the chairperson of the state pollution control board to present their green credentials. The chairperson, a serious officer, said that as over 50 per cent of the company's cars were diesel, it was difficult to understand how the company could claim to be "green". Company representatives spouted some gibberish about green technology. The chairperson was willing to listen but asked for a meeting so that the company could put forward its evidence but also invited representatives of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, to present their point of view. But when the meeting was convened, this auto company was the only one that failed to turn up. Some corporate transparency!

This happened even as the evidence about the toxicity of diesel particulates has continued to mount. Numerous studies show that over 90 per cent of the particulates emitted from diesel vehicles are less than 1 micron. It is also clear that the smaller the size of the particulates the more deadly they are as these go deep into the lungs and cause damage. Diesel particulates are also carcinogenic simply because diesel exhaust contains high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (pahs). No institution in the world has listed petrol or cng particulates as carcinogenic. But diesel particulates can affect the genetic makeup and even impact on future generations by damaging the foetus. In fact they breach the safety of the womb. This fortnight, a us ngo , Natural Resources Defence Council released a study which shows that a child sitting inside a diesel bus may be exposed to four times the level of toxicity as compared to someone riding besides the bus. And that this exposure would translate into a significant risk of cancer.

It is for these reasons that there is no place for diesel in cities like Delhi which must move towards cleaner fuels like cng and lpg and oppose the use of even slightly cleaner diesel vehicles based on Euro ii norms. It is estimated that by moving to cng today, we can get emission levels even better than the Euro iv diesel vehicles -- which will be introduced in Europe in 2005 and in India by 2007 at the very earliest.

But getting decisive action on cng has been next to impossible. On the one hand, the Central government through its Ministry of Surface Transport has been shameless about its intentions to sabotage any action. It has delayed taking steps to certify the technology and even when it has finally laid down procedures it has made sure in good bureaucratese that the certification procedure would be impossible to follow. The Ministry of Environment has also ensured that it gives no help to cng . On the other hand, the Delhi government, gripped as it is with the double disease of apathy and vested interests, has worked hard to do little and to create a crisis when the Court's switchover deadline comes. In its affidavit to the court this fortnight, the Delhi government maintained that it needed an extension of its deadly diesel policy.

The media is playing into the government's hands to suggest that the city is moving towards a public transport crisis because of the court's actions. It fails to point out that even when the first deadline -- to convert all eight-year old buses to cng -- expired in March 2000, the Supreme Court had suggested a way out. It had asked the Delhi government to present a serious plan of action as well as file an undertaking saying who can be held accountable for the non-implementation of the order by a new deadline (see pp 33-42: The cng sabotage). The government never filed such an affidavit and just took the eight-year old vehicles off the road even as it allowed private operators to increase their diesel fleet in violation of the Court's order. This time too the judges may listen if the government can prove seriousness and impose accountability.

The good thing is that the government's reputation is mud and no senior advocate is willing to defend it in court. We just hope the Supreme Court will not just pull up the Delhi government but also the Union Minister of Surface Transport. This is not a cng crisis. It is a crisis of governance.

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