Diesel car sales zoom

The sudden spurt in the sales of private passenger cars that run on dirty diesel has grave implications for public health

By Chirag Shah
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- Maruti Udyog Limited is unable to keep pace with the demand for Zen-D, the diesel variant of one of its best-selling models.

There is a huge order backlog and a six-week waiting period for the Accent crd i, the diesel version of Hyundai Motors' mid-sized car.

The diesel models of Tata Engineering and Skoda Auto today account for more than 80 per cent of their production.

Fiat India recently unveiled Palio Diesel and Adventure Diesel to cater to the ' b ' and ' c ' segments of the automobile market. The carmaker is projecting the two vehicles as its "next big success story".

if the great Indian car bazaar were a Formula One racetrack, diesel cars would be doing to petrol variants what Kimi Raikkonen has lately done to Michael Schumacher: knocked him off his perch. From the tailpipe angle, the sudden spurt in the sales of private passenger cars that run on dirty diesel has grave implications for public health. It is quite evident that the automobile industry is taking advantage of the huge price differential between petrol and diesel, and hard-selling diesel cars.

What has set the alarm bells ringing is that even Japanese and Korean car companies, who were earlier wary of entering the diesel market, have thrown their hats in the ring. The result is that the consumer is spoilt for choice, with the number of diesel car models increasing by a whopping 300 per cent during the last four years -- from around five remaining since 1999, to 16 in 2003. Maruti's managing director Jagdish Khattar has reportedly said: "We are working on a long-term strategy on diesel, irrespective of whether the fuel price differentiation remains or not."

Meanwhile, manufacturers are trying out innovative marketing strategies to lure the consumer. In a bold move, Skoda has gone in for price parity between its petrol and diesel models. Hyundai's ad for its Accent crd i (common rail direct injection) actually harps on the "negatives" of a diesel engine -- from its polluting nature, high vibration and noise, to its being slow off the block. The message that it seeks to convey is that the Korean company will redefine diesel technology.

In actual fact, however, both the Union government and the automobile industry have ignored the emerging worldwide trend to clean up diesel fuel and technology. In the process, they have failed to address public health concerns over fine particulate emissions from diesel vehicles and their cancer-causing potential.

In the us , the California Air Resources Board (carb) categorised diesel particulates as toxic air contaminants way back in 1998. It set stringent emission standards and fuel quality norms to clean up diesel by 2004. These rules mandate cuts in sulphur level to 15 parts per million (ppm) as against the current 150-350 ppm. Soon the us Environmental Protection Agency adopted a similar approach.

On its part, the eu is going way beyond the sulphur stipulation of 50 ppm for Euro iv technology by setting a limit of 10 ppm. An effort is underway to take corrective measures in some parts of Asia also, including South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong. Even Vietnam would introduce Euro iv diesel from 2007.

By comparison, India lags way behind. According to the proposed official roadmap, Euro iii norms (with a 350 ppm sulphur diesel limit) will be implemented in the country as late as April 2010. The only exception will be a few select metros where the regulations will be enforced five years earlier. But even for these cities no plan has been formulated to introduce Euro iv norms. Amid this bleak scenario, the rising popularity of diesel cars can only make matters worse. "We cannot ban them. They should meet stringent emissions norms so that we have better technology. If they don't meet norms, they will automatically be phased out," says a senior cpcb official.

"The current policy favours diesel. Manufacturers are actually pushing diesel variants really hard." points out Vikas Bali of at Kearney, a management consultancy. Whereas in Delhi petrol costs Rs 32, the price of diesel is only Rs 21.

Predictably, carmakers justify their stance. Some seek refuge in banal arguments like compliance with the law of the land. This does not amount to much as India is still stuck with outdated Euro i and Euro ii norms. Others fall back on their know-how. An executive from Hyundai claims: "The crd i technology that is being used in the Accent promises performance and refinement that is very close to petrol engines."

Shreekant Gupta of the Delhi School of Economics avers: "The government should slap a higher tax on diesel cars since they are harmful to the environment." Sameer Akbar of the World Bank has another suggestion: "One thing that the government can do immediately is to strengthen the fitness inspection and certification programme." As a long-term measure, he recommends the "introduction of diesel with sulphur content of 50 ppm (or lower), along with particulate trap".

For now, diesel cars are in pole position -- ahead in sales and in pollution, too.

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