Is India prepared to tackle emissions?
India follows European emissions regulations but with a time lag. The current Indian standard of Euro IV, known as Bharat Stage (BS) IV, is 12 to 16 years behind Europe. So, the controversial Volkswagen fleet might be complying with the country’s lax emissions standards, and as the Union minister of transport pointed out, it is still not a concern for the country. But the mood in Volkswagen showrooms in Delhi and Gurgaon—the highest car selling cities in the country—is certainly gloomy. Dealers at these showrooms told Down To Earth that demand has slowed down. Before the scandal broke, domestic sales of the company recorded seven months of consistent growth; exports of Volkswagen cars manufactured in India had also increased significantly.
Indian buyers are wary because not too long ago they had a brush with a similar corporate fraud. Between 2005 and 2012, General Motors (GM) sold 114,000 units of Tavera Diesel SUV model—both BS-III and BS-IV variants—by tampering type approval tests and a process that confirms that mass production of new cars conforms with the vehicle certification results. To obtain the certification, the company had sent pre-selected samples that were fitted with improved engines and were in a different weight category than what it sold afterwards. It is said that this fraud could be caught because of whistleblowers within GM. The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) initiated a probe into the matter, following which GM admitted to the fraud and recalled 114,000 units of the Tavera in 2012-13. However, it got off scot-free as India does not have a system to penalise companies for such corporate fraud.
This had exposed cracks in the system. The government had set up a committee under Nitin Gokarn, former head of the National Automotive Testing and R&D Infrastructure Project (NATRIP), which recommended the tightening of certification tests and minimising interference of manufacturers in pre-selection of sample cars sent for certification. Instead, the committee recommended, certification laboratories like the Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI) should identify samples from factories and dealers. Companies can then transport the sample cars to ARAI with proper coding and identification number. But so far, there is no system in place that legally allows testing agencies to select any vehicle, anywhere, anytime without prior information to the manufacturer. MoRTH is tight-lipped about this.
Auto industry observers say on the condition of anonymity that the domination of the governing structure of certification agencies like ARAI by the automobile industry should be addressed to resolve the conflict of interest and allow impartial testing.
The big lesson for India is that vehicle standards alone are not enough. India does not have a system in place to check if individual vehicles are deviating a lot from the original norm in real-world conditions. The law should provide for an authority to check, issue recalls of vehicles by companies if they are found non-compliant, levy fines, withdraw approval for sale in the market to ensure that vehicles conform to the stated emission targets. Such systems will make non-compliance with standards more expensive for the industry and prevent frauds and low-quality technology.
“Unfortunately, we do not have such systems to monitor the performance of new emissions control technologies like Selective Catalytic Reduction in India,” says B Bhanot, chairperson of Transport Engineering Division Council of Bureau of Indian Standards and former head of ARAI.
The Auto Fuel Policy committee of the Union Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas in 2014 had also recommended emissions warranty and recall programme to make manufacturers responsible for on-road emissions performance of vehicles. But this is yet to be implemented. “This requires an independent government body with resources, testing laboratories and authority under law to test vehicle emissions in real-world conditions and validate their performance,” say Ray Minjares and Anup Bandivadekar of ICCT that had carried out the tests on Volkswagen model in the US.
MoRTH has alerted state governments to be more vigilant in their emissions tests. But current on-road emissions testing programme, called pollution under a certificate, is very rudimentary and is only meant to check if the vehicles are being maintained well. This cannot check inherent technical faults or frauds in vehicles for which vehicle manufacturers are responsible. Car companies in India do voluntarily recall vehicles, but only in case of technical defects.
“With the high application of electronics, cars now have more chips than a packet of wafers. This is extremely complex to monitor. With robots getting smarter than the cops we need the strong end-of-process testing,” says auto industry expert Murad Ali Baig.
On diesel tipping point
India cannot delay setting up these systems at a time when it is dieselising rapidly and is poised to bring advanced emissions control systems in the diesel segment. More than half of the cars that are sold today run on diesel. Diesel-based highway freight traffic has also expanded phenomenally. And all this is happening based on emissions standards that are 12 to 16 years behind Europe; without a clean diesel roadmap; and in the absence of regulations to ensure the on-road effectiveness of new emissions control technologies. The World Health Organization has branded diesel emissions as class 1 carcinogens for their strong link with lung cancer. Diesel also emits high levels of toxic particulates and NOx and is a contributor to deadly ozone gas.
To escape this double whammy, India, in 2020, needs to leapfrog to Euro VI emissions standards—the current regulations in Europe, as only at that level the toxic diesel emissions can be reduced effectively and nearly equalise with other fuels.
But the official proposal from the Auto Fuel Policy committee recommends deferring the adoption of Euro VI to 2024—nearly by ten years. This is despite the recommendation from the Supreme Court to clean immediately up diesel and check dieselisation. The diesel vehicle industry is resisting the early introduction of Euro VI standards even when the Union Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas has submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court that 10 ppm sulphur fuel—needed to comply with Euro VI standards—will be available in 2020. A review of costs shows that it is more expensive for the diesel car industry to meet tighter emissions standards than the petrol car industry. The diesel industry is holding back quick progress in emissions standards improvement in India.
New diesel vehicles meeting tighter standards will come fitted with advanced particulate traps and NOx controls. If these systems do not function optimally, both particulate matter and NOx emissions can become uncontrollable. This is bad news at a time when particulates, NOx and ozone levels are rising in Indian cities, making the air more toxic. Compliance is also about winning the trust and loyalty of the customers who are buying cars in good faith. This is a serious business risk.
India will have to bring clean diesel and fix the rules for compliance to make manufacturers accountable and responsible for emissions performance on the road. This is the global diesel dilemma. Even after cleaning up diesel emissions, other countries are finding it difficult to make the technology perform in the real world to cut the risk of both public health and business.