Foot down on air pollution
In a significant development earlier this week, the Supreme Court directed transport authorities to ban the sale and registration of vehicles with Bharat Standard (BS) III emission norms from April 1. As per a Union government order, cleaner fuel complying with BS IV standards will be available across India starting April 1, 2017. Prima facie, the court seems to be sending out a message that public health concerns will always trump short-term business considerations.
Unfortunately, the decision could have adverse implications for many auto companies, especially those manufacturing two-wheelers and commercial vehicles. With over 8 lakh vehicles (a small fraction of the 19 crore vehicles on Indian roads) worth up to Rs 20,000 crore at stake, these manufacturers had asked that the April deadline be enforced only for the sale of vehicles and not their registration.
The Centre supported the pleas of these companies, clearly an unwise move in hindsight. Unsurprisingly, the court remained unmoved. In response to the order, these companies are desperately scrambling to sell their inventory at massive discounts and upgrade their emission technology, besides considering export options. Nonetheless, it is not as if these companies were not forewarned.
The Government and the Environment Pollution Control Authority had given them one full year to prepare for this eventuality. Moreover, the Centre has also spent vast sums of money in upgrading refineries to produce BS IV fuel. The money has come from the taxpayers, and it should be utilised for a cleaner environment. Any consideration for the profits of big automobile companies is set aside. Reports, in fact, indicate that some vehicle manufacturers have themselves called for a shift to higher emission standards after investing in cleaner technology over time. Bajaj Auto, for example, announced earlier this year that its entire product range sold in India had become compliant with BS-IV emission standards.
Even in its review of the Auto Fuel Policy nearly two years ago, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Petroleum and Natural Gas said that the Centre should implement the less polluting Bharat Stage (BS)-IV quality of fuel standard across the country by 2017. It's nearly four months into the year. If there was any miscalculation, it was on the part of certain vehicle manufacturers. They had apparently pinned their hopes on the probability that the deadline for the shift from BS-III to BS-IV norms would be relaxed. Nonetheless, the court's uncompromising approach will have little real impact on pollution levels, although it does set a clear precedent for vehicle manufacturers.
On-road vehicle movement is one of the major contributors to the poor state of urban air quality. In a study, the Central Pollution Control Board had found that 30-50% of ambient particulate matter pollution in six major cities—Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Pune and Kanpur—came from vehicle exhaust and road dust. For companies, they must now pay heed to the next deadline. "We have decided that we will move to BS-VI norms across the country directly from BS-IV norms by April 1, 2020. This is a revolutionary decision and necessary to address pollution," said Union Road, Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari said earlier this year.
Evidently, the government has decided to leapfrog BS-V norms and move to BS-VI. It must now also ensure it executes the court's orders so that lower-grade fuels do not impact catalytic converters (emissions control device) of the new batch of vehicles. Shift to cleaner fuel is definitely the order of the day. It is imperative to note, however, that exhaust from vehicles is not the only source of air pollution.
There is road dust, which is earthen material or dirt that becomes airborne, primarily by the friction of tires moving on unpaved dirt roads and dust-covered paved roads. In Delhi, for example, crop burning in Punjab and Haryana in the winter months is also a significant contributor to air pollution, not to mention poor waste management practices. In a recent column, Sarath Guttikunda, a leading expert on urban air pollution in India, illustrated some of the long-term policy measures Delhi needs to take. But the crux of his column talked about what it means to take the long view.
"Real policy is not short-term emergency measures that are defensive in nature," writes Guttikunda. "We need a proactive policy spanning multiple years, and we need to act fast, local and through multiple agencies across multiple political parties to take the long view on air pollution in Delhi." There are various causes responsible for Delhi's bad air and some of the solutions required to tackle them will involve consistent efforts from government agencies and responsible citizens beyond the current news cycle. Families are already moving out to the city to avoid the pollution. Some have installed expensive air purifiers.
Those who cannot move out or afford the latest anti-pollution technology are suffering. One study in 2010 found that the deadly PM (Particulate Matter) 2.5 was linked to between 7350 and 16,200 premature deaths and a stunning six million asthma attacks per year in the national capital. If authorities take note and act on these concerns, we may not have this conversation next year.