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The government is leading the people up a smoky garden path by insisting that car owners fit their vehicles with catalytic converters and use unleaded petrol. That is not the solution at all; rather, what is not being said is that by using unleaded petrol the authorities are adding high dosages of another suspected cancer-causing chemical into the city air: benzene, which is a major component in unleaded petrol. Vehicular air pollution will keep growing so long as the government acts like a handmaid of the automobile industry, which has consistently refused to switch over to green technology and invests only one per cent of its revenue on research and development; and so long as the government does not clean up its own act by stopping the production of hugely substandard fuel.

The year-long investigation by the Centre of Science and Environment, a Delhi-based non-governmental organisation, which forms the basis of the report in Down To Earth, for the first time sheds clear light piercing the smog over public awareness. The real threat from vehicular air pollution is trivialised by giving so much publicity to non-issues like checking emissions for a "pollution under control" certificate. After all, what is being checked? Emissions from a car manufactured on the basis of a faulty design -- approved by the government agencies -- which uses substandard fuel produced mostly by the government itself!

The public, which is being threatened with action if their cars (rolling out after 1996) are not fitted with catalytic converters, is not being told, also, that the converters work only if the correct mixture of fuel and air is constantly maintained, which needs what is called a closed loop air ratio control system. But no Indian car manufacturer uses this system. But what if the new cars are fitted with converters? They form just 10 per cent of the entire vehicular population in our cities. So much for PU certificates!

Besides, the Indian manufacturers have adopted what is known as the European Driving Cycle (EDC) instead of the Indian Driving Cycle (IDC). The driving cycle is a statistical formulation which simulates the driving pattern a car is likely to go through. The IDC is definitely more appropriate for Indian roads, because the road conditions in India are far worse than in European countries, making Indian cars to emit more. But by adopting the EDU, the vehicles are continuing to pollute, though the papers are not showing this.

The government has been constantly conceding the industry's demand for further and further dilution of emission standards. After five years of procrastination’s, the standards were adopted in 1996. Yet, Rahul Bajaj told CSE researchers, "My existing three-wheelers cannot meet the 1996 emission standards." Incidentally, the two-stroke engines used to run two-wheelers and three-wheelers are highly fuel inefficent and contribute a major share of vehicular air pollution. They constitute 65 per cent of the entire vehicular population and contribute 70 per cent of the hydrocarbon emissions and 48 per cent of carbon monoxide emissions. In fact, hydrocarbon emissions from a two-stroke 150 CC bike equals that of a four-stroke 1500 CC car engine! As long back as the late 1980s, then environment secretary T N Seshan had recommended the phasing out of two-stroke engines. But it all fell on determinedly shut ears of the industry and politicians.

Another fraud on the people is switching over from 'cold start' to 'warm start’ measurements for setting up emission norms. Vehicles emit more when the engine is cold. Initial recommendations on emission control were based on this logic, but the ministry of forests and environment rejected this. So, we have switched over to 'warm start' measurements. But this is a climbdown, because it "needs more sophisticated technology, or greater social responsibility, to control emission standards during cold start.

Shift over to greener technology, especially keeping in mind the coming 2001 standards, which are expected to be more stringent. But the R&D investments of the various two-stroke engine manufacturers make dismaying reading: Kinetic Engineering: 2.2 per cent; Kinetic Honda Motors: 2.1 per cent; Majestic Auto: 1.7 per cent; Hero Honda Motors: 1.2 per cent; and Bajaj Auto Ltd: 1.0 per cent.

But even the government is equally guilty. It raises a R&D cess from manufacturers. The report quotes Premier Automobiles managing director, Vinod L Doshi, as saying, "In the last 12 years,the government collected Rs 114 crore as R&D cess, all of which has gone to the Consolidated Fund for India. Rs 81 crore of this amount has remained unspent..."

The government is also responsible, solely, for the bad quality of fuel. The procedure of setting and meeting fuel standards is locked up in bureaucratic hocus focus. The standards are notified by the Bureau of Indian Standards. But the standards are set by a a designated committee, which has in it all the people interested in petroleum standards: representaives of petroleum and natural gas ministry, the Automobile Association of India, the ministry of industry, Central Pollution Control Board and research organisations like Centre for High Technology (CHT) The Committee is headed by an advisor to the ministry of petroleum. And most often their lastword is: the refineries cannot meet the standards set by the committee itself! "Besides, the standards are voluntary. So, who's checking," says S K Jain of CHT.

In terms of policy, the government’s decision to subsidise diesel goes hand in hand with its policy of providing kerosene cheap to the rural poor. But the urban population uses 70 per cent of the kerosene. And, the transport sector uses 70 per cent of the diesel. Diesel is a higher pollutant than petrol. But running on cars is cheaper.

The biggest tragedy is that the health impact of vehicular pollution is intangible, so we tend to ignore it But we forget that each death due to air pollution (of which, vehicular pollution is the key source) costs from Rs 147,280 to Rs 1,400,595 per year. Every year, 7,500 die due to air pollution in Delhi, 5,700 in Calcutta and 4,500 in Bombay.

The Indian agencies meant for the monitoring and protection of the environment do not have the wherewithal for executing their mandate. But more important, they often do not have the knowledge or the will to meet the situation. For instance, a senior official of the Central Pollution Control Board was asked whether benzene and stratospheric ozone were health hazards, and he said "No." But S K Chabra head of the cardio-respiratory department insists that "Ozone is probably more harmful than all the other gases emitted by vehicles, and benzene is a proven carcinogen."



Copyright CSE  Centre for Science and Environment