With the air quality debate reaching caterwauling proportions, and with voices of fact and reason being drowned out in the noise, Ishan Raghava talks to Saumitra Chaudhuri, ex-member of the Planning Commission and chief architect of the Auto Fuel Vision and Policy 2025, about the real causes of air pollution, possible remedies, and how a piece-meal policy focusing only on vehicles will never deliver the changes desired or needed.
What’s your view on the decision to ban diesel vehicles with over 2,000cc of engine capacity in the NCR – especially when you consider that many of these vehicles have the latest technology and surpass our emission standards?
The Supreme Court is not supposed to be making policy, but when there seems to be an absence of policy, what do the courts do when people go to them for redress? And I think that’s what the courts are essentially saying to the government – that do you think diesel is polluting or not polluting? Give us a clear answer. I find that when I go onto our roads, there is a large amount of pollution coming from commercial vehicles and trucks, but the government drags its feet about addressing these issues because of a variety of factors. So, I think the courts also are giving voice to the kind of frustration that people are developing when you have situations like the current air quality in Delhi and the situation is not addressed imaginatively, or there’s the feeling that it is not being addressed in an honest fashion. I think in this there is an opportunity for auto manufacturers to go to the court and explain that their 2,000-plus cc engines are not polluting – to establish that fact. I think there is a fair enough chance that, if the large manufacturers explain clearly to the courts that large diesel cars are not particularly polluting compared to other sources, that is an argument based on merit and the ban can be removed.
Do you think the Delhi government, the NGT, and the Supreme Court are targeting private car owners because they are a realtively easy target?
Of course, they are easiest to target. What will those poor fellows do? They are the most law-abiding citizens, they will keep quite and suffer – whereas if you try and implement such a ban on two-wheelers and three-wheelers, those segments will be politically damaging for the government. It’s easy to pick on the people who pay their taxes, who follow the rules, who don’t want to fall foul of the government, and are scared of the courts. Everybody in our society fights back, but most of the people in this section of society are the ones who are not capable of fighting back – at most what they can do is they will vote against the incumbent government in the next election. So, they will suffer, and suffer silently.
When you were leading the committee about emission standards, and creating a roadmap, what were your findings about the main cause of emissions in our country?
You know, in our report, we suggested that Source Apportionment studies regarding pollution and its causes should be done at least once every three years, if not more often, especially for majorly polluted areas like Delhi. We submitted our report in 2014, it was based on the last study done in 2010, and here we are sitting in 2016, and no fresh study has been carried out till date to determine the causes of pollution. Trying to formulate an emissions policy without a source apportionment report is like trying to cure a patient without the doctor even having a look at what the patient suffers from.
Anyway, if we go back to the latest study that we have, which is 2010 in this case, vehicles contributed to 24% of all pollution in Delhi. Out of that 24%, 8-9% comes from four-wheelers, while the balance is contributed by two-wheelers, three-wheelers and commercial vehicles. So, yes, anybody creating policy on controlling or reducing pollution should focus on the 24%, there’s no doubt about it, but, more importantly, you should also focus on the other 76% of pollution causing sources. And if you manage to reduce the pollution contributed by automobiles, but take no action on the other pollution sources, then what’s the point of the whole exercise? Even if you manage to, say, reduce the vehicular pollution levels by 50%, so vehicles then produce 12% of total pollution, there will always be the other 76% of pollution sources that will keep contributing to the conditions. So, I think there is a need for a balanced approach, where you need to tackle all polluting sources. Unfortunately, under the current governance conditions, the idea seems to be to focusing more on creating headlines and news bites rather than doing any actual, meaningful work. The current pattern seems to be to create new headlines every other day, and with public memory being as short as it is now, it seems no one remembers what claims were made a few days ago – and what are being made with each passing day. The other point is about two-wheelers – as you know, two-wheelers in India comply with BS-III standards, and are much more polluting compared to four-wheelers. They also need to be moved on to more stringent emission standards, and why is nothing being done about that? This will have a massive direct impact on the emissions by automobiles, but it needs bureaucratic and political will to enforce such a measure.
Would you say that the public sector oil refineries should take some share of the blame for trying to stall the progress towards the higher quality fuels that are needed to implement more stringent emissions standards, such as BS-V or BS-VI?
I don’t think so. You see, oil companies are the milk cattle’s for governments in our country. Whenever there is a shortage of money or resources at the governmental front, they are milked to provide additional amounts of capital to cover for other inefficiencies in our system. Given that’s how the system works, I don’t think the oil companies have much of a say in this matter. So, practically, unless they get a go ahead from their political masters, they cannot invest into producing higher quality fuel. So, for instance, new refineries like Panipat and Paradip have no problem in terms of moving to producing BS-V or BS-VI fuel, but older refineries, like Koyali and Barauni, have to get government approvals for investments to upgrade – and these have been delayed. So, these two, Koyali and Barauni have a particular problem – the others, if given reasonable time, will do the upgrades.
How difficult is implementing the ‘One Country – One Fuel Norm’ policy?
Forget about the slogan, the basic question to the government is this – do you want to improve things or do you want to make slogans? If there is seriousness about implementing the policy then it can be implemented in steps.
In your view, what is a viable roadmap about reducing pollution levels and improving the environment?
First of all, you cannot just focus on automobiles only – you have to look at all principle sources of pollution and address all of them. If you look at the current policy, there is excessive focus on the vehicular sector and zero focus on the other sources, which is a mistake. If you are not focusing on 76% of pollution sources – such as construction dust, resettled road dust, cow dung patties and wood burning – there will never be a significant drop in pollution levels.
How much of blame can be attributed to the fact that we’ve never developed a robust and adequate public transport system?
Quite a bit of it, in fact. The average commuter today drives to work and back because he doesn’t have reliable public transport options. At least in Gurgaon and Noida, you can use the metro to commute. I can use the metro because I travel during off-peak hours, but if you use the metro in peak hours, the rush is crazy. But, there are so many areas that are not connected by the metro. Secondly, the metro is now running with eight coaches, and I don’t think they can increase the number of coaches any further – so capacity expansion there will be difficult. The metro expansion is also happening at a very slow pace, as the authorities seem to have no sense of urgency in expanding the metro. In fact, if you look at the infrastructure projects in our country, we believe in running ten years behind the curve. We don’t anticipate the density requirements properly, and by the time we establish new infrastructure, the demand already surpasses its peak capacity – so, ultimately, the end result of the project is not fulfilled. But, this is how the system works in our country. You see, the main problem is that, at least in the government, people are very perverse at taking decisions. In the private sector, people take the time to predict demand and accordingly build capacity. But, in the government, nothing will be done till the problem has reached crisis proportions. The basic problem is that, in our government, there’s a disinclination to actually deliver services and there’s a great inclination to massage the seats of power.
What’s your view of the government’s announcement of moving straight from BS-IV to BS-VI?
You see, the point is that BS-V and BS-VI are not substantially different in emissions – and not at all in fuel quality. There is only a very minor difference in the fuel needed for both. Basically, the fuel has 10PPM of sulphur, and you can use that in the latest technology vehicles. The main superiority that BS-VI emissions have over BS-V is that VI puts a number on particulate numbers. So, it’s not just how many milligrams of particulate matter a vehicle emits, but how many particles there are – so it puts an upper limit on the number of particles. Which means, basically, the emissions are of very fine particles. So the fact is that BS-V is a phenomenal improvement over BS-IV, and BS-VI only tops it up by a small margin. Here again, I think its more of a public projection issue, and it’s being made to sound as if going to BS-VI emissions standards is like going to Mars – instead of going to BS-V which is easier to implement realistically at this point of time. For the refineries, both standards pose little or no difference because the fuel produced is essentially the same in both cases, but for manufacturers it makes a big difference – as the cost involved in upgrading their vehicles to meet BS-VI standards is quite substantial.