WHO CAN TOUCH DIESEL?

Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE -

VOLK­SWA­GEN DIESEL car scam is of no con­se­quence to us. In­dia’s diesel ve­hi­cle in­dus­try is so pow­er­ful that even this ex­posé of the cover-up of diesel emis­sions is like wa­ter off a duck’s back to them. They should be re­named Te­flon Diesel. They will ride it out, lit­er­ally, even if it means we choke and die from deadly emis­sions of their ve­hi­cles.

My ex­pe­ri­ence with the diesel ve­hi­cle in­dus­try teaches me this. It was in the mid-1990s, when the air in Delhi was black with smog, that we at the Cen­tre for Science and En­vi­ron­ment be­gan work on controlling air pol­lu­tion. Sci­en­tific in­for­ma­tion was trick­ling in that diesel emis­sions were much more toxic than un­der­stood. This is be­cause diesel ve­hi­cle tech­nol­ogy had an in­trin­sic prob­lem. As fuel qual­ity im­proved to re­duce sul­phur, it not only re­duced the mass of par­tic­u­late emis­sions, but also the size of the par­tic­u­late mat­ter. The world for the first time learnt about res­pirable sus­pended par­tic­u­late mat­ter. Th­ese tiny par­ti­cles were deadly be­cause peo­ple could in­hale them. Par­tic­u­lates could even en­ter the blood­stream, lead­ing to res­pi­ra­tory and car­diac ail­ments. A few years later, ef­forts to re­duce th­ese tiny par­ti­cles led to the birth of an­other pol­lu­tant: ni­tro­gen ox­ides (NOx).

In 1998, when we put to­gether the body of ev­i­dence against the “en­gines of the devil” the ve­hi­cle in­dus­try was fu­ri­ous. Tata Mo­tors, which was just ven­tur­ing into making pri­vate ve­hi­cles run on this dirty fuel, slapped us with a C100 crore defama­tion suit. It ar­gued there was no way to prove that par­tic­u­lates were toxic. The Supreme Court did not lis­ten to it. It asked for all diesel-fu­elled com­mer­cial ve­hi­cles in Delhi, from buses to three-wheel­ers, to move to com­pressed nat­u­ral gas. It also di­rected that the qual­ity of fuel had to be im­proved.

But dirty diesel still won. In the decade of 2000 the ve­hi­cle in­dus­try, led by a hand­ful of com­pa­nies—Tata, Mahin­dra & Mahin­dra, Ashok Ley­land and Eicher—struck a gold mine. They cranked up the man­u­fac­tur­ing of pri­vate diesel ve­hi­cles us­ing the ruse of so-called cleaner fuel, while tak­ing ad­van­tage of the fact that diesel was kept cheaper than petrol in the name of the poor and pub­lic trans­port. By the mid-2000s over half the cars sold in In­dia were fu­elled by diesel. Ev­ery time we pointed out the over­whelm­ing ev­i­dence of diesel’s tox­i­c­ity, we were brushed aside. It was said that Europe, bea­con of green­ness, was fond of diesel. It could not be wrong. When we pointed out that Europe was in­cen­tivis­ing diesel be­cause of its bet­ter fuel econ­omy and car­bon diox­ide emis­sions, but was strug­gling with lo­cal air pol­lu­tion be­cause of tiny par­tic­u­lates and NOx, we were dis­missed. The in­dus­try was on a roll. Diesel ve­hi­cles were al­lowed by law to emit seven times more par­tic­u­late mat­ter and three times more NOx than petrol ve­hi­cles. Fuel was cheap. There was money to be made. Pub­lic health was damned.

They also con­tin­ued to sell dirty trucks and buses across In­dia. Their ar­gu­ment was that clean fuel—that met Bharat Stage IV stan­dards or the 50 ppm limit for sul­phur—was not avail­able across In­dia. As a re­sult, the ve­hi­cles that run across the length of the coun­try and tra­verse mega cities like Delhi use dirty tech­nol­ogy. If they move to Bharat Stage IV emis­sion stan­dards, they would be­come 80 per cent cleaner. But why clean up fuel, tech­nol­ogy or air? The rich can jump ship and leave the coun­try or in­stall par­tic­u­late fil­ters in their homes. The rest, ac­cord­ing to the diesel in­dus­try, do not mat­ter.

So, busi­ness run on dirty diesel has boomed. Noth­ing touches Te­flon Diesel. Not even the cur­rent pub­lic health cri­sis in our cities. To­day it is clear that dirty air is killing us slowly but surely. Cars, buses and trucks run­ning on diesel are a big con­trib­u­tor to the pol­lu­tion. We must ur­gently im­prove fuel and tech­nol­ogy stan­dards for ve­hi­cles but Te­flon Diesel is in the way.

The gov­ern­ment’s roadmap for im­prov­ing the fuel and ve­hi­cle tech­nol­ogy is de­signed to en­sure that Te­flon Diesel has a good run for its money. The roadmap does not push for a quick move to na­tion­wide Bharat Stage IV stan­dard, al­low­ing the in­dus­try to sell dirty com­mer­cial ve­hi­cles for at least an­other two years. It will also not ask for a tran­si­tion to Bharat Stage VI by 2020, thus, de­lay­ing the clean­est fuel and tech­nol­ogy.

Why? Petrol ve­hi­cles can eas­ily meet Bharat Stage VI stan­dards by 2020 but not the diesel ones. Volk­swa­gen’s subterfuge on emis­sions has ex­posed this. This is when In­dia is far be­hind Euro­pean ve­hi­cle emis­sion stan­dards, which, in turn, lag be­hind US stan­dards. Europe took an in­cre­men­tal route to clean ve­hi­cle emis­sions and ended up in­cen­tivis­ing diesel, some­thing that is now cost­ing it dear. Its high NOx emis­sions and a grow­ing threat of black car­bon emis­sions are forc­ing it to re­think the diesel car op­tion.

For all th­ese rea­sons the global au­to­mo­bile in­dus­try is see­ing the end of diesel. But not in In­dia. Our health is not even on the agenda. So, die- sel it is.

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