Fatal Attraction

The thirst for diesel in India is growing. Diesel mania grips the Indian automobile industry and the customers with more and more companies going for diesel variants. What most people are ignorant of or prefer to ignore is the fact that diesel fumes are highly carcinogenic and pose a serious threat to public health. Many Indian cities, especially Delhi, are already reeling under high concentrations of diesel-related pollutants like small particulate matter, oxides of nitrogen and ozone. What was supposed to be cheap fuel for the poor - farmers for whose pumpsets and tractors the government had subsidised the price of diesel - is now driving the cars of the rich. Morally and environmentally reprehensible, yet there is nobody in the government to stop this killer trend

Published: Monday 31 May 1999

Fatal Attraction

-- (Credit: Graphs: Shri Krishan)Hell on wheels
Dieselmania hits the Indian private automobile sector. And why not? Diesel is cheaper than petrol, and car loans are available in plenty

it's sleek , it's mean, it races, it is not an aircraft. It runs on diesel. Some of them even run on petrol. The automobile industry has today become the victim of its own success and so has the successful urban professional. As cars crawl through a haze of smoke in the metro, few realise how they are paying for this success with their health.

Delhi has the largest market for cars in India and, since 1987, the annual rate of increase of cars in the city has even outpaced two-wheelers. The average annual rate of increase of cars from 1995-96 to 1997-98 was about 10 per cent, as opposed to 7 per cent in case of two-wheelers. Using these growth rates to project the future car population, by 2009-2010, we get a total car population of 2.39 million, thrice the number of cars registered by March 31, 1998. Assuming that 25-50 per cent of this increase is going to be diesel cars, by March 31, 2010 Delhi's car population could equal to the entire number of cars registered today. In other words, more than 800,000 new diesel vehicles could be plying in Delhi by 2010.

Parminder Singh, a computer engineer with a multinational company, is suffering from chronic chest pain and coughing. He agrees that pollution in Delhi has risen dramatically during the last two decades and that his health bill has shot up. To make up for his health costs, he has decided to curb other expenses. One of which is switching from petrol to diesel, a cheaper fuel, to run his car. "My car consumes a lot of petrol during a jam," he says, after a bout of coughing. Little does he know that as the number of diesel cars in the jam grows, his cough will only get worse. Unfortunately, no car salesman has told him that.

S L Bhatt, joint secretary, department of science and technology, New Delhi, drives a Maruti 800. As a second car, he has chosen Telco's Indica Mint (diesel). "Besides the fact that it is based on Indian technology, I have placed an order for the car mainly keeping the fuel efficiency in mind," he says.

Bhatt is among the 60,000 people who have booked an Indica. According to Tata Concord, an automobile agent in Connaught Place, New Delhi, in the first round of booking, there were 115,000 applications, of which 60,000 were actually booked. Of these, 15,000 were from Delhi alone. Over 90 per cent of all the orders booked were for diesel cars.

The other car manufacturers racing ahead with diesel cars include Premier Automobile Ltd's Fiat Uno, Mahindra-Ford's diesel Escort and Mercedes-Benz India Ltd's diesel variant of E250. Besides, General Motors and Hindustan Motors-Mitsubishi joint venture are ready with their diesel Astra and Lancer respectively. Even the public sector, Maruti Udyog Ltd has not been able to restrain itself from entering the diesel car race. It has already rushed in with the diesel Zen and has announced more diesel versions of their existing models like the Esteem in the near future. The trend towards dieselisation of the private vehicular fleet has grown rapidly over the last few years, and is extremely worrying for a variety of reasons, including the fact that diesel emissions are carcinogenic and it negates the Supreme Court order to keep a check on vehicular pollution in Delhi.

The sole factor responsible for the overwhelming demand in diesel cars is the low running cost, at times comparable with that of a scooter. And advertising agencies are promoting them in a big way. Says Indronil of Lintas, responsible for the print media ad for Maruti's diesel Zen model, "We have made the ad keeping all the Zen values, including diesel, in mind..." And what are the diesel values? "That it is less polluting than petrol," he says, unsure of whether the company had given him that brief or it is personal opinion.

Despite the confusion prevailing in the adman's mind, there is no ambiguity in the car-purchaser's. Gone are the days when diesel-run vehicles were treated as objects of contempt: noisy, unsightly, behemoths. All you need to do is "surprise yourself at the nearest dealer". Metallic reds, blues and silver colours add to the hype surrounding diesel cars.

If the price tag disappoints, there are several "buy now, pay later" options to the rescue. Low payouts (monthly instalments) and loans for longer durations make owning a car much easier. For instance, leading financiers like Tata Finance, Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India and Hong Kong Bank offer loans for a maximum of seven or eight years. This translates into people buying more cars at monthly instalments of around Rs 2,000 to Rs 5,000, a small price to pay to satisfy the aspirations of a would-be car owner.

The growth in diesel-powered three wheelers and two-wheelers is no less alarming. Crompton and Greaves rolled out their diesel three-wheeler, Garuda, in 1996 while Bajaj Auto Limited, afraid of losing its market share, has developed a diesel model of its three-wheeler. Besides, there are a host of other diesel-run three-wheeler manufacturers already in operation for a long time. Some of them include Scooters India, Lucknow, manufacturer of the widely-used Vikram three-wheeler; Kerala Auto, Kerala, which manufactures a six-seater auto; and Atul Auto, Gujarat.

This trend is being encouraged by the enormous difference in petrol and diesel prices -- a result of the government's fuel pricing policy. Diesel prices are no longer subsidised and they fluctuate according to international standards. But diesel is not taxed, while petrol is taxed heavily to cross subsidise kerosene. The myth attached to government policy is that diesel prices should be kept cheap to help the agricultural sector and to support public transport. What the government does not know is that the biggest benefactor of cheap diesel are urban consumers. While the transport sector uses 70 per cent of the diesel produced in the country, the urban population consumes 70 per cent of the kerosene meant for the rural poor.

Take, for instance, Sukhinder Singh, a farmer in Hoshiarpur district of Punjab. Proud owner of 28 hectares of land, he owns a few pumpsets too. But his pumpsets run on electricity for the simple reason that he doesn't have to pay any electricity bills. He uses diesel only to run his diesel gensets. As the power goes off it is pitch dark outside. A diesel genset roars to life drowning out the noise of the crickets. Sukhinder Singh switches on the TV set with a gentle click of the remote.

Sukhinder Singh has limited use for diesel for agriculture. Instead, luxury cars are now mopping up all the diesel meant for people like him. All this is happening at a time when the Supreme Court is attempting to steer a large part of the public transport fleet in Delhi away from the use of diesel. The Court's July 28, 1998 order requires all commercial vehicles more than eight-year-old to run on compressed natural gas (cng) or other cleaner fuels by March 31, 2000, and conversion of the entire Delhi Transport Corporation buses to cng by March 31, 2001. The Environmental Pollution (prevention and control) Authority, an institution set up to monitor and reduce pollution in Delhi, has also asked the state government not to register any diesel taxis in the city. However, diesel will continue to remain a source of air pollution in Delhi mainly because of:

large number of diesel vehicles, especially trucks, which will continue to enter and/or ply in Delhi;

predictable exponential growth in public freight sector and private vehicles fleet; and

increasing use of diesel generator sets. Many of them, available in the unbranded market sector, use discarded engines, with very high levels of emissions.

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