Hammer of Thor

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Sunday 30 April 2000

The Supreme Court has had to force the government to take hard decisions

When it comes to pollution control, it is only the hammer of the honourable judges of the Supreme Court (sc) that seems to push the government to do anything. Without creating a crisis, first for the auto industry last year and now for the government, it seems that no action gets taken. Almost, as if the government has abdicated its responsibilities for pollution control and public health.

The manner in which both the state and Central governments wasted the long lead time of 22 months, that the sc had given them is truly a murky story of how politicians and bureaucrats consistently give in to industrial lobbies. The sc order dates back to July 1998 with a clear deadline -- to convert all eight-year-old buses (both private and of the Delhi Transport Corporation (dtc) to compressed natural gas (cng). Forget public interest. It is also sad that the media has failed to draw public attention to the totally non-cooperative and obstructionist role that the Central government has played in this entire drama. The Court, too, unfortunately, tends to overlook the latter's role because the prime responsibility for carrying out the Court's instructions rightly lie with the state government.

The diesel lobby has long been opposing the Court's order to get buses converted to cng presumably because it means entering a new line of technology and the 'cascade effect' of sc orders for Delhi which then get endorsed by the High Courts for other metros. Both dtc officials and officials of certain companies which manufacture buses have been saying for long that the cng conversion option is too expensive and that buses with Euro ii emissions standards running on 0.05 per cent sulphur diesel should be considered clean enough for Delhi. dtc wasted away the time given to it without doing anything and then filed an affidavit a few days before the deadline asking for a five-year extension in the hope that the Court would agree the Euro ii diesel option, which the dtc actually proposed in its affidavit. The collusion between the dtc and the diesel lobby could not be more self-evident. The argument in favour of moving to cng is very simple. The biggest pollutant in Delhi's air is small particulates and diesel buses contribute to as much as 20-25 per cent of all particulate pollution from vehicles. Moving buses to cng that has negligible particulate emissions, would mean a drastic reduction in this pollutant.

The diesel lobby's influence has been so powerful with the Delhi government that it has not been able to take any decision on another sc order of July 1998 which instructs it to augment its bus fleet to 10,000 by April 1, 2001. As the court had also ordered that all buses in Delhi must run on cng by April 1, 2001, the implication of the court orders was clear. The Delhi government had to ensure that all new buses it ordered had to be running on cng. It would be an absolute waste of money to order diesel buses and then convert them to cng within a year or so. But the state government could not come to grips with the matter lost in its dilemma whether it should order diesel or cng buses. At the least, the state government could have notified private bus operators that all eight-year old buses have to run on cng by April 1, 2000, but this much too was not done. What we see today is the result of a total disregard for court orders and amicus curiae Harish Salve rightly pointed out in court that the dtc affidavit amounts to a 'contempt of court'.

Central government agencies have also tried their best to be as obstructionist as possible. Let us begin with the ministry of petroleum. It was only around this time last year that the ministry had told the sc that it is not possible for it to supply any better than diesel with 0.25 per cent sulphur content. And yet within a year the ministry has backtracked and minister Ram Naik is proudly taking out public advertisements that both petrol and diesel with 0.05 per cent sulphur content will be supplied from April 1, 2000. How does a ministry change its mind so quickly? All this has happened not just because of the growing pressure from the sc now that only Euro ii cars are to be allowed from April 1, 2000 a court order in improvement in fuel quality was becoming inevitable. But the real pressure came with the entry of the private sector Reliance refineries who are waiting to capture the large Delhi market by offering the desired quality of fuel. A move which put the cat amongst the coy public sector pigeons.

Improvements in both petrol and diesel quality are vital for controlling emissions. In 1996, the sc had ordered that all new petrol cars must have cat convertors and asked for the introduction of unleaded petrol. But sulphur in petrol also destroys the catalyst. A cat convertor is supposed to last for 80,000 km but no manufacturer knows whether this is true or not. This is because of the poor fuel quality supplied to Indian consumers, making a mockery of sc orders. In the case of diesel, even if particulate pollution from all buses is reduced to negligible levels by moving them to cng, there will still be many uses of diesel. Goods vehicles are heavy polluters and here the cng option is limited because of the large volume of inter-state traffic.

Given the extremely fractured state of the country's environmental governance, the Union ministry of environment and forests (mef) has no powers to set standards for fuel quality from the pollution point of view. In fact, even the emissions standards for vehicles are notified by the ministry of surface transport (most) and not by the mef. The latter is a mere adviser. Since there were no standards for cng buses, it was most that had to take the lead in this. But the ministry did nothing on its own despite the sc orders till almost a year had gone by taking the specious plea that the state government had not asked it to do so. Meanwhile, the Indian Institute of Petroleum refused to certify that a converted bus was not meeting the standard because no standards had been specified nor was the certification procedure. Instead of clarifying the certification procedure fast, most calmly took the position that the certification of converted buses was a special matter, different from the certification process for new vehicles, even though a few cng buses were already running in Mumbai. Why couldn't the same procedure be applied to the buses for Delhi? most merely set up a committee to look into the matter with no deadline totally oblivious of the sc deadline. This obviously created problems and delays for the Delhi government.

It became clear a few weeks ago where the loyalties of most have been all the time when it publicly stated that the cng option is too expensive and the option of improved diesel buses should not be overlooked. Sure, cost is important, but haven't auto manufacturers also invested a lot to improve their vehicles to Euro ii standards? The Western experience clearly shows that a clean environment does not come together with fancy modern technology without paying a cost or else people have to be prepared to pay the cost of death and illness in the form of doctor's fees, costs of medicines and hospital charges. But protecting the environment is not most responsibility so why should it care and it is not under the spotlight of the sc either.

The most retrograde position, believe it or not, has been that of the mef. In an affidavit, filed before the sc, the ministry says, that it has discussed the recommendations of the Environment Pollution Control Authority (epca), for the National Capital Region, to ban private diesel cars in order to stop new sources of particulate pollution with most and the ministry of industry and disagrees with it. The epca is an agency of the ministry itself but set up under the orders of the sc and which regularly provides advice to the court. The reason cited for disagreement is that no vehicle that meets the specified emissions standards can be banned. For the mef to disregard environmental concerns and hide behind a legal provision is outrageous. Does the ministry have any information to show that the public health effects of diesel and the actions being taking against its use from Tokyo to California can be disregarded?

And just how valid is its argument? After all, vehicular emissions standards are secondary to and derivative of air quality standards. The ministry itself has not come up with any action plan to give us clean air by controlling particulate pollution in Delhi which is its own responsibility. The Central Pollution Control Board has started measuring respirable particles (pm10) which go deep into the lungs and are a bigger threat to public health than all particles. Both in 1998 and 1999 winter, pm10 levels reached as high as 800 microgrammes per cubic meter (g/cum) which are levels that we have not been able to find recorded in any city of the world. Whereas the standard says that it should be below 100 g/cum. Let the ministry take up the challenge and tell the public how this particulate pollution can be controlled without controlling the use of diesel.

Moreover, all over the world, from Zurich to California, it is recognised that local situations can demand stricter standards than the national standards. Not surprisingly, the sc is imposing stricter standards for a pollution hot spot like Delhi both through stricter emissions standards as in the case of cars and through alternative fuels in the case of buses, autos and taxis. In fact, the mef affidavit can also be read as saying that the sc's orders are illegal.

It is clear that several agencies of both the Central and Delhi government have been greatly under the influence of the diesel lobby. Even Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has contributed his little bit to this state of affairs through his total inaction on the pollution front despite evidence of serious and growing air pollution in most Indian towns and cities. Despite the fractured state of environmental governance, as described above, there have been no reports of the cabinet having discussed this issue in its entirety. The entire story stinks of money, influence and of course, lack of concern.

A strong sc has definitely increased the accountability of the Delhi government for air pollution but as of yet the Central government has escaped any accountability.

-- Anil Agarwal

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