Licence to kill

One person dies every hour in Delhi due to ambient air choked with particles. Diesel exhaust is a major source of fine particles that are the most lethal. Environmental regulators in California and elsewhere are putting the brakes on diesel cars. But transnational carmakers -- from Toyota and Ford to Mercedes -- are bringing diesel cars into India. While this is not against the law, it will certainly add to the body count in Indian cities

Published: Thursday 15 July 1999

Licence to kill

-- (Credit: Amit Shanker / cse)This story began with an early-morning phone call. "Do you know," the caller said, "Toyota, TELCO and General Motors are ganging up to start a pro-diesel campaign? They plan to take journalists on freebies to see excellent diesel technology across the world." Intrigued, I asked if the caller knew anyone who is behind this. He said, "Try Kuldip Sahdev. He works with Toyota."

If something is underhand, the simplest way to deal with it is to make it open. So I asked the Centre for Science and Environment's Our Right to Clean Air Campaign Team to interview Sahdev, a former Indian Ambassador to Japan. Sahdev came to see us, talked openly, and assured us that there was no such joint effort, though it was true that Toyota is planning to take Indian journalists to Japan to show them its excellent production facilities around the time it launches its vehicles in India later in the year. But in no way is it a pro-diesel campaign, he said. It is just to publicise the work of Toyota. Sahdev sounded convincing.

But in all this a thought came to me: Why are all the major foreign car manufacturers out to sell diesel cars in India and especially in Delhi where we are literally choking on particulate pollution? Don't they know about the dangers diesel emissions pose to public health? Doesn't Toyota know that Japanese scientists have found extremely carcinogenic substances in diesel exhaust? Don't Ford and General Motors know that California is taking strict action against diesel vehicles? Isn't Mercedes-Benz aware of all this?

Indian car companies can possibly make a case that they made investments in diesel technology because they were not fully cognisant of the health threats posed by it. It is a fact that literally no car company has any environmental health specialist on its staff to give it proper advice. But, surely, the foreign car majors know this. Mistakes being made in ignorance is one thing but mistakes being made in full knowledge of facts is totally unforgivable.

So we decided to confront the foreign car companies with a common questionnaire and insisted that we get interviews or written replies from nobody less than the chief executive officers ( ceo s) of these companies. Except for Fiat and General Motors, all others responded. Here is our report....

---Anil Agarwal

Diesel: an urban nightmare
One person dies prematurely every hour in Delhi due to the extremely high levels of suspended particulate matter ( spm ) in the city's ambient air, according to a study conducted by the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment ( cse ). Moreover, 52,000 people die every year in 36 Indian cities due to high levels of spm .

The real killers are fine particles -- the smaller the particles the deeper they penetrate into the respiratory tract.

Diesel engines produce 10-100 times more particles (one to two orders of magnitude) than petrol engines.

Over 90 per cent of these particles are dangerously fine.

Delhi uses 2.5 times more diesel than petrol.

Diesel particles are very carcinogenic. In 1997, a Japanese scientist identified in diesel emissions the most potent carcinogen known as of date.

There is no technology that can get rid of dangerous particles in diesel exhaust. As the diesel fuel quality gets better and the the engine designs get efficient, the number of pm 2.5s (particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter) rises dramatically.

The concentrations of particles less than 10 microns in diameter ( pm 10s) reaches six times the recommended levels in Delhi winters. The only way to prevent air quality from deteriorating further is to substantially reduce the use of diesel.

The Supreme Court ( sc ) of India has already ordered that all diesel buses in Delhi should move to compressed natural gas ( cng ) by March 31, 2001, which will reduce particulate emissions from vehicles by 30-35 per cent. But particulate levels have to drop by 90 per cent if Delhi is to get clean air.

It was hoped that liberalisation of the car industry would help bring better and cleaner technology to India. But transnational carmakers, who are aware of the severe pollution load in Indian cities, are promoting diesel cars, creating a very obvious and serious threat to public health.

While the Indian government does next to nothing to control air pollution, people will keep dying in Indian cities due to the car industry's lack of regard for public health. The transnationals' lack of moral responsibility will kill urban Indians.

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