Hop, skip and sidestep

 
By Anil Agarwal
Published: Tuesday 15 June 1999

Industrial leaders must realise that this is not a strategy that will work any more. In a modern world where information transfer is extremely rapid, even a group of five people can take on the best in the biggest of companies.

It is indeed true that controlling air pollution is a complex issue. How clean is the air finally depends on how clean are our engines, how clean they remain over time, how clean is our fuel, and the nature of the transport system that we have. All people involved, therefore, have to do their job -- from automobile and petroleum industry to government regulators and policymakers, transport planners and the vehicle users -- if we have to get clean air. The fact of the matter is that nobody is doing anything serious in a coordinated way, especially government agencies.

In such a situation, it is extremely easy for any of the agents cited above to avoid confronting the issue by confusing everyone and passing the buck to everyone else. When a particular section of the automobile industry came under pressure from environmental organisations like the Centre for Science and Environment for promoting diesel cars in a city like Delhi, it tried its level best to confuse the issue by using diversionary arguments. Why are diesel cars bad for Delhi? In simple terms, for three critical reasons. Diesel cars will add 10 to 100 times more particles to the air than petrol cars. Delhi's air is already chock-full of particles. Particle levels often reach shocking levels which are 5-6 times the standards. And diesel particles in particular are highly carcinogenic.

The first response of the diesel lobby was to say diesel is clean. But when confronted with hard scientific information, it admitted the carcinogenicity of diesel fumes but immediately blamed it on the poor quality of diesel supplied by the government. Which is indeed true, but when it found that the Supreme Court judges were not prepared to budge so easily, it tried another attempt to divert the issue, and raised the issue of carcinogenicity of petrol. And in the process caught the petrol lobby, particularly the market leader Maruti, off guard. Not wanting to delay the issue for a day, given the high level of pollution, the Supreme Court admirably handed down an order that challenged both the lobbies. The diesel lobby is pleased because, faced with a threat to itself, it has brought down its competitors, too. Now, industry leaders are singing another song: Should pollution control be the job of the Supreme Court or the government? Maruti claims that it was strictly following government orders.

There are major lessons in all this for the automobile lobby. One, it can do as much hop, skip and sidestep as it wants, confuse and sidetrack, but it must remember that it is its own investment that is at risk. The diesel lobby has invested several thousands of crores in diesel cars. If these cars get banned now, it will face a huge loss. But it must not forget that pollution is growing, people are getting angrier. And the government is proving totally incompetent in dealing with the problem. In India's democratic set-up, somebody, somewhere is going to wake up and hit the polluters hard. And in this case it has been the environmental community and the honourable judges of the Supreme Court.

In such a situation, the industry should stop hiding behind the petticoats of the government and factor in environmental concerns into its investment policies on a proactive basis. Otherwise, the biggest financial loser will be no other than the investing industrialist. There was never a time when industrialists with foresight were more urgently needed.
We do not get the impression that industry is getting this message. Automobile industry officials still only rattle away solutions like poor fuel quality, which pass the buck to someone else, or phasing out old vehicles, a strategy which helps them to expand their sales. Their pleadings will acquire a greater sense of sincerity if they also showed readiness to accept greater responsibilities themselves. Let us take the case of emission warranties. Even if a vehicle passes high emission standards at the factory gate, what is the guarantee that six months later its emissions are still high? Therefore, advanced countries have instituted a system whereby manufacturers provide an emissions warranty for a large part of the vehicle's lifetime. But the idea is being resisted by the industry, again using side arguments: How do we ensure our vehicles will get clean fuel, will vehicle owners keep them properly, etc.

Of course, these issues are relevant but what of the deterioration that takes place in emissions because of various parts and manufacturing design? Not one company has yet produced a single study to show that it has properly researched all the factors that lead to emissions deterioration. The diarrhoea of words and public ads is, nonetheless, substantial. Check the tailpipes of the consumer is all that the industry can suggest. One day, the consumer affected by asthma will hit back. Industrialists must never forget that this is the biggest strength of India, its democracy, which give its citizens enormous rights and opportunities to protest. n

-- Anil Agarwal.

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