Exhausting Practices

Prescribed as the antidote for all problems related to vehicular pollution, Pollution Under Control (PUC) certificates have been an obsession with the Indian government for a decade now. This is happening at a time when other countries are criticising the effectiveness of only checking tailpipes of vehicles for controlling pollution. Instead, auto manufacturers are being made increasingly accountable for the lifelong emissions of vehicles they produce. Hand-in-glove with the auto industry, the Indian government is completely oblivious to what is happening elsewhere in the world. The buck stops at the vehicle users, who they blame for not understanding the need to maintain vehicles. It is time to bring to book the real culprits, says Anumita Roychoudhury

Published: Friday 15 September 2000

Exhausting Practices

-- (Credit: Ananda Banerjee / CSE)it was bandied as a strategy to promote good vehicle maintenance and help curb pollution. But India's inspection and maintenance ( i&m ) programme -- in other words, the Pollution Under Control ( puc ) certificate scheme -- has turned into a major farce. After almost a decade of checking tailpipe emissions, the effectiveness of the programme has not been assessed. Yet, it continues to be prescribed as the panacea for all vehicular pollution ills, by the government as well as the automobile industry. This, at a time when other countries such as the us , which obviously has more sophisticated i&m programmes, are beginning to doubt the scheme's effectiveness in controlling pollution. In India it has grown into an attractive scheme with its own lobby and political influence. It is easy to pin the blame on the hapless consumer rather than the powerful industry.

i&m strategy in India hinges on checking tailpipe emissions -- carbon monoxide ( co ) in four-wheelers and hydrocarbons ( hc ) in two-wheelers. In 1990, irrespective of the age and weight of the vehicles, uniform exhaust emission norms were introduced. It mandated tailpipe co levels in car exhaust at 3 per cent by volume and hc levels in scooter exhaust at 4.5 per cent by volume. For diesel vehicles, smoke density limit was set at 75 Hartridge smoke unit, a unit for testing smoke, at full load. These tests are conducted in more than 400-odd testing stations scattered all over Delhi where the scheme was first introduced. In a city like Delhi, any i&m programme would have to target a vehicle population of more than three million. The sheer volume of the tests, low compliance levels and weak enforcement of the programme have made it ineffective.

The reality is that i&m has not made much difference to any city's air quality. The us has the most composite i&m programme and stringent exhaust emission norms depending on the age and weight of the vehicles. Despite all this, various studies have pointed out that even the us $1 billion project has made negligible impact on us air quality. Contrary to expectations that i&m would reduce co and hc emissions by 30 per cent, some studies indicate higher emissions in states with i&m facilities than in others where no such facilities exist.

The US experience: I&M doesn't help
When in the early 1990s, the us Environment Protection Agency ( usepa ) asked state environment agencies to enhance their i&m programme, not everybody was convinced about its effectiveness. The California Air Resources Board ( carb) conducted a series of roadside surveys in 1989, 1990, and 1991. They showed that i&m programmes had not achieved the calculated and modelled reductions in pollution levels as required by law, irrespective of the annual smog check programme. Random roadside survey of 11,000 vehicles in California revealed that the programme had little effect on emissions from in-use vehicles. Average co concentration, for instance, remained nearly constant in Los Angeles since 1983 and stayed that way throughout the rest of the decade. In fact, ambient co concentration in Los Angeles dropped dramatically from the mid-1960s, when controls were first mandated for the motor vehicle fleet, until the early 1980s. From 1983, however, average co concentration and the number of times the air quality went above the standard remained nearly constant throughout the remainder of the decade.

In view of these findings, Douglas R Lawson of the Desert Research Institute in Nevada, usa, cautioned that it was important to evaluate the programme before usepa embarked on enhancing it further.

Tampering, the easy way out
All along, the i&m concept in the us has been based on ideal conditions. The real world is a different ball game altogether. Manipulation and corruption hinder its effectiveness. The roadside surveys conducted by carb also showed that nearly all vehicles eventually "pass the test". Any competent owner or mechanic can adjust a vehicle so that on the required day a given vehicle can pass the test. The next day, however, the vehicle can be tuned back to its original state or simply left to deteriorate.

Says Michael Walsh, an automobile consultant and editor of Carlines , " i&m will always be controversial because they directly impact every vehicle owner and driver and with so many people involved it is easy for corruption to seep in." The rate of tampering in the us has been found to be as high as 25 per cent (see table: Not tamper proof ).

Says Lawson, "It appears that motorists do not perceive the smog check programme as beneficial to air quality and they avoid vehicle repair costs. This implies that i&m programmes must confront the human behaviour problem and not just the technological problems." Lawson identifies several problems: inspection centres do not screen problem vehicles; corruption and fraud; about half the cars repaired after inspection have increased emissions; and motorists tamper with cars to make them clean on the required day.

Hence, when the usepa proposed to make i&m programmes stricter with time-consuming and costly emission tests for in-use vehicles, there were grounds for apprehension. As many vehicles were already "passing the tests", this would mean only continuation of the programme, not effectively reducing emissions. When usepa pressured about 35 states to adopt i&m tests, some of them protested. The June 25, 1999, issue of the daily usa Today reported that officials balked at the cost and effectiveness of a programme that required every car to be tested to catch some 10 per cent big polluters. Similarly, a study in Minnesota found almost no effect where usepa models predicted there should have been roughly a 30 per cent decrease. Colorado found that 29 per cent of the cars, which failed initially in 1995, failed again in 1997. Even those who follow rules end up polluting more over time. In Arizona, pollution from failing cars increased after they had been fixed, wiping out much of the improvement. Based on this evidence, usa Today criticised usepa, saying, "Despite the findings, the epa doggedly defends its testing programme, saying it is fine tuning its pollution forecasts. Worse, the epa lets states off the hook by giving them credit for pollution cuts that aren't actually occurring."

Despite the criticism, California enforced an enhanced i&m programme in 1998. This included, among other thing, more sophisticated biennial acceleration simulation mode test under two engine loads on dynanometer. As a result the measurements were more representative than the normal idle speed testing as was done under earlier basic i&m programme. Emission cut-off point varied according to the vehicle weight and age. This was further related to the mass emission standards on the basis of which the car was manufactured. If a vehicle exceeded the second higher cut-off point then it was classified as "gross polluter". Owners of vehicles falling in this category could receive either a repair cost waiver (if the owner first spends at least us $450 in emission-related repairs) or an economic hardship extension (if the owner meets the low income criteria and spends at least $250 in emission repair). This gives the owner another two years to fully repair his or her vehicle.

But in view of the doubts already cast on the programme, the California state legislature set up an i&m review committee that contracted Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory of the University of California, to evaluate the state's current programme on enhanced smog check. The report, submitted to the committee in June 2000, claims that with enhanced smog check programme average emissions of the overall fleet reduced by 5 per cent for hc and oxides of nitrogen ( no x ) and 20 per cent for co , up to two months after the test. In terms of quantum of pollution, 40-86 tonnes of hc , 864-1,686 tonnes of co and 59-83 tonnes of no x exhaust emissions were reduced per day.

The study claims that there is substantial benefit in the case of vehicles that fail the initial test and then pass the second test. The reduction in co , for instance, can be as high as 70 per cent. But emissions of those vehicles that pass the first test increase steadily and substantially over the next six months. Therefore, the net gain is not so much. The report does point out that an initial limited remote sensing study suggests a much smaller emission reduction benefit from enhanced smog check programme than is measured under the programme test conditions or at the roadsides. The remote sensing data indicates that benefits of the programme can be seen for six-nine months for hc and co and just three months for no x .

i&m programme in California state costs about $850 million. In fact, enhanced smog check costs about $5,400 per tonne of pollution load reduction and i&m committee still considers this to be cost-effective as compared to other strategies like low emission vehicles and vehicle retirement.

Explains Walsh, "Because California has done so many other things, including having the most advanced new car control programme in the world with second generation on-board diagnostic centres and manufacturer recall liability, it is difficult for them to find additional programmes to reduce emissions by even a few per cent. Rather than just looking at percentage reductions on individual cars and comparing it to millions of dollars, I think the dollars should be compared to the tonnes reduced and ask if the money were spent in a different way, how many more tonnes can be reduced."

The i&m review committee report has looked into the human behaviour factor as well. The report admits that at least 10 per cent of vehicles failing the initial tests never receive a passing test. In fact, one-third of these vehicles were spotted while being driven in areas with i&m programme even one year after testing.

If corruption level is high in the us how much worse would it be in India? The poorly designed decentralised system of checking tailpipes in itself is flawed. It provides far greater scope for corruption and evasion and is based on extremely weak exhaust emission standards. The us has both centralised and decentralised systems in place, and yet there have been reports of tampering. Centralised programmes require all tests to be done mostly in government-owned stations specialised in emissions testing, while in a decentralised system a large number of private garages are involved. Despite the high costs involved with the former, it is perceived as more credible and honest. Decentralised systems may lack the accuracy of the automated centralised stations and would need surveillance to check corruption even in the us .

It is just about anybody's guess how futile the puc scheme is. Says Walsh, "It is much easier to do a poor programme than a good one and, in my view, it is better to do nothing than to do a poor programme."

The US Environmental Protection Agency found tampering rates to be as high as 25 per cent
City Year Number of vehicles tested Tampering rate (in percentage)
Phoenix (Arizona) 1989 465 25
Milwaukee (Wisconsin) 1989 488 15
Louisville (Kentucky) 1990 951 16
San Diego (California) 1989 500 11
Bakersfield (California) 1989 520 16
Santa Barbara (California) 1990 542 11
Source: Douglas R Lawson,“Passing the Test – Human Behaviour and California’s Smog Check Programme”, in Air and Waste, Vol 43, December 1993, Desert Research Institute Nevada, Air and Waste Management Institute, USA

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