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May 19, 1999


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Business Commentary/ Darryl D'Monte

Time for war against the dirty car

It is regrettable, but nonetheless welcome, that it took the Supreme Court to crack down on cars which pollute the air in the National Capital Region. What the Central Pollution Control Board could not, or did not, achieve right under its nose, the apex court has done.

The registration of cars that do not meet Euro I and II norms will be stopped. This ban is due to the adverse publicity given to New Delhi being one of the most polluted cities in the world and the pressure mounted by environmentalists, notably the Centre for Science and Environment, whose director, Anil Agarwal, serves on a committee appointed by the court to monitor its air pollution. It is a salutary lesson for the automobile and two- and three-wheeler industries: the national capital has the highest concentration of these in the country.

Unfortunately, these very industries have been the most recalcitrant in taking steps to curb their emissions of toxic gases. It is an open secret that Rahul Bajaj, the head of Bajaj Auto, said to be the world's biggest producer of two-wheelers, has thwarted attempts to phase out two-stroke engines, which let off unburnt hydrocarbons and are the bane of cities. It is only belatedly that they are being replaced by four-stroke engines.

Bajaj now occupies a key position as head of the Confederation of Indian Industry, but his recent remarks on the Supreme Court's directives give a fair taste of businessmen's insensitivity towards protecting the environment.

Emphasising the need for a balance between growth and environmentalism, he claimed that in order to reduce pollution to zero levels, "human beings will have to go back to cave ages (sic)".

On the verge of the 21st century, when the entire world is aware of the need to curtail the degradation of the environment at almost any cost because it concerns the health and well-being of everyone on this planet, it does not lie in the mouth of Bajaj to make such retrograde remarks.

Vehicular pollution in India is high, says the WHO The World Bank has actually put a cost to the damage that air pollution is causing to this country, in terms not only of medical bills, but absenteeism from work and a drop in productivity. Far from taking us back into the dark ages, the clean-up of the environment can ensure that the future is sustainable. The failure to rid ourselves of the scourge of air pollution (and other forms) will condemn city-dwellers in the next century to chronic debilitation, especially with respiratory diseases.

If Bajaj believes that this is what advanced industrial nations still characterise as progress, he is living in some make-believe world. The Tatas, who otherwise have been the exemplars of Indian industry as far as environmental protection and social uplift are concerned, have similarly bared their fangs on the same issue.

Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain, who are editors of the fortnightly magazine Down To Earth, published a column titled The Engines of the Devil in Business Standard which castigated auto manufacturers for producing diesel vehicles.

Their argument is quite simple: the price of diesel is subsidised to keep it roughly at par with kerosene, with which it will otherwise be substituted in vehicles. In the nineties, diesel consumption in the capital rose by 70 per cent as against petrol's 30 per cent.

Diesel is the source of three major pollutants -- nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide and suspended particulate matter. The last is particularly harmful, since diesel exhaust -- visibly emitted by three-wheelers and trucks -- contain tiny particulates which are highly carcinogenic. The World Health Organisation has concluded that SPM is the most serious pollutant and is responsible for killing 460,000 people a year globally.

Of these, almost a third are due to chronic asthma. The pall of pollutants visible in Delhi and other cities contains this toxic brew. The authors question the quality of imported diesel, as well as that of the vehicle engines. Euro I standards, which the auto industry is congratulating itself for adopting, were enforced in Europe in 1992; cars there will have to observe Euro III in 2000. This is why the French term this fuel "the engines of the devil".

Telco, which produces a range of diesel cars and trucks, was not amused by the fact that the article was illustrated by a picture of the Tata Sumo and Sierra, although the article didn't refer to these. It sent a legal notice to the authors as well as the newspaper, demanding a retraction for the damage this juxtaposition had caused to its commercial reputation.

It assessed this at a staggering Rs 1 billion! These vehicles have met only Euro I emission standards. Anyone with a knowledge of the media would be aware that the picture was not chosen by the columnists. While Telco could claim it is technically correct in claiming damages, it has committed the most awful faux pas in going on the warpath.

The CSE has alleged that Telco is trying to intimidate it for its activist role in court and has openly invited litigation.

Indeed, Telco has actually undone what it was claiming to have achieved as a token of its commitment to environmental protection. It has spent over Rs 4 billion on converting its truck diesel engines it makes with the US firm, Cummins, to meet Euro I standards by January this year -- ahead of the April 2000 deadline. It was claiming, however, that the anti-diesel perception was incorrect because in Europe diesel engines were most fuel-efficient.

It wanted customers to make the choice, which is a dangerous proposition in this country with diesel, when it is so heavily subsidised. At any rate, its case on diesel will now be blown sky-high because of the perception that it is anti-environment for trying to browbeat prominent environmentalists who have only been doing a public service.

Bajaj loftily may talk of how by 2000 his two-wheelers will meet all emission norms which he says are one of the most stringent in the world for automobile makers! Unless industry comes to its senses and realises that there is nothing to be gained by looking at short-term profit and ignoring the health of our cities, the country faces a grim future.

It will presumably only be a matter of time before the Supreme Court's directives are made applicable to the rest of the country, or at least metros to begin with. Already, the auto manufacturers, beginning with Maruti, which sells a quarter of its cars in the National Capital Region, are crying wolf, begging for more time to meet the deadlines.

Ford India has also got into the act, suggesting that the authorities phase out old vehicles which do not meet these standards. Thanks to the apex court, the capital has already banned cars which are over 15 years old.

Of course, it will be wrong to single out manufacturers as the only villains of the piece. Politicians and bureaucrats are guilty of 'automobilising' society by refusing to raise taxes on the use of cars, by stressing private transport at the expense of public transport and encouraging the construction of roads and highways rather than city rail links.

The Shiv Sena in Bombay is the most venal in this respect, being infatuated with its 55 flyovers, 11 of which have been completed, at a total cost of some Rs 15 billion. It is widely rumoured that there are lucrative cuts to be made on these deals -- this allegation was made by a former municipal commissioner at a public meeting. This includes the much-publicised ''bonuses'' of Rs 100,000 a day, which the builders are earning for completing construction ahead of schedules which can be easily manipulated.

Everyone -- not least the urban elite, for which a swanky car is a fetish -- is answerable for society's failure to keep the air clean.

Darryl D'Monte


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