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Slaying the demon diesel...

R. Srinivasan | Updated on: Dec 22, 2021
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…and other (Green) Courtly tales of knight-errantry

Writ Petition No.13029 of 1985 — a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by MC Mehta and Others against the Union of India and Others in the Supreme Court of India — is a landmark case in the annals of green jurisprudence in India. It was that PIL which first forced the judiciary to step in and fill the gap in environmental pollution control action caused by executive inaction and indifference.

It was that case which also fundamentally changed the face of public transport in India. The SC order which forced the conversion of all public transport vehicles, including buses, taxis and autos plying in Delhi, to convert to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) — then considered a much ‘cleaner’ fuel — caused a dramatic improvement in Delhi’s air quality which lasted for nearly a decade.

It changed the way cities looked at urban planning and public transport, paved the way for the ‘metro revolution’ which swept India’s mega cities transforming mass rapid transit along with the real estate sector and development of satellite towns, and led to many changes in standards, tax and fiscal policies which fundamentally altered the growth trajectory of India’s booming automobile sector, among others.

It also led to some fundamental distortions in policy which are continuing to have major impact today, more than a quarter of a century after these efforts were first set in motion by the MC Mehta PIL Last week, for instance, the Delhi government finally ordered the de-registration of diesel-powered vehicles which are 10 years or older, with effect from January 1, 2022.

The order was the culmination of a lengthy court battle which had resulted in a 2015 order by the National Green Tribunal — India’s apex ‘Green’ Court which decides on environment-related issues — to deregister all diesel vehicles older than 10 years. In 2016, after more appeals, this was amended to de-registration in a phased manner, starting with 15-year-old vehicles first.

The new fiat comes after the NGT rejected a last minute ‘Hail Mary’ appeal to modify the order to exclude the Covid period, which would have bought a minimum of two years’ time, or even longer, given how new variants keep popping up. While dismissing the modification plea, the NGT observed that the government had “failed to prove” that allowing 10-year-old diesel vehicles to continue plying would not harm public health.

Which is all very well, but the ban perpetuates some fundamental policy distortions. The biggest, of course, is the continuing demonisation of diesel-powered internal combustion engines. While by and large, petrol engines are cleaner than diesel engines, there are lots of ifs and buts. Modern diesels with high efficiency particulate filters are actually cleaner than many petrol engines. And two-wheeler petrol engines, on a cubic capacity basis, can be more polluting than cars, particularly for older vehicles. Of the more than one crore vehicles registered in Delhi, for instance, over 70 per cent are two-wheelers, which have not been considered in any of the pollution-control measures undertaken so far.

Diesel’s prevalence in India’s automobile sector is itself the result of another policy distortion — the earlier fuel subsidy regime, where diesel was considerably cheaper than petrol because it was used in agriculture to power pumps and tractors. That constitutes a miniscule portion of diesel consumption, but politicians worry about perceptions not factual minutiae. The result was a proliferation of diesel engines for even tiny vehicles like three-wheeler, and of course, cars.

Judicial distortion

While the subsidy distortion has been largely done away with, leading to a correction in manufacture and sales of diesel cars, the policy distortions introduced by judicial interventions continue. Another SC order, for instance, imposed a green tax on diesel engine cars with engine capacity of more than 2000 cc. There was never any logical explanation given for the 2000 cc cut-off, just as there was never an explanation given for the sub 4-metre length excise classification (admittedly not the NGT’s fault this one!) which shaped India’s auto market for three decades.

The point is, that such ad hoc interventions introduce as many problems as they solve. The CNG-isation of Delhi’s transport fleet led to substantial increase in NOX emission, while cutting back particulate emissions. But NOX is a greenhouse gas and just as harmful to health as fine particulates!

Then there is the 10-year cut-off. Vehicle age will determine the level of technology present in a vehicle but does not always guarantee better outcomes from an environment point of view. A well-maintained diesel vehicle which is a decade old can be far less polluting than an abused and ill-maintained one — whether diesel or petrol-engined — which may be just months old, same as how a well-kept diesel car can be much cleaner than a petrol or CNG car which is poorly maintained. There is zero evidence to suggest that a car with a 2100 cc diesel engine is more polluting than one with a 1600 cc one. And so on.

Even the instant order gives an escape clause to vehicle owners. By giving deregistered vehicles an NOC (No Objection Certificate) to be registered elsewhere. Neighbouring Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, which surround the national capital and form part of the same climate ecosystem, allow this. So how will simply changing the State of registration help reduce pollution in Delhi? The real solution is simple. The Union Transport Ministry has been solving one end of the equation by imposing tighter emission standards for vehicle manufacturers and higher standards for fuel — India now operates on BSVI standards for fuel, among the most stringent in the world. There is also the push towards EVs, with some tax incentives on offer.

Together, this addresses the flow problem — reducing the number of more polluting vehicles entering the market. But the stock problem — of existing vehicles — can be only addressed by implementing the existing emission standards and ensuring that polluting vehicles are taken off the road. Older vehicles need to pass fitness tests and emission standards. If they meet both, why take them off the road, which is a waste of planetary resources?

That has to be done by State administrations, which have shown a singular lack of interest in doing this so far. Other than seeking rent, pollution tests and certifications are observed more in the breach. Fitness testing, now mandatory for commercial vehicles, is another bonanza for bribe takers, as any taxi or auto owner will tell you.

The existing ‘green cess’ on registration charges, meant to create a corpus for pollution control measures, continues to be a black hole as far as deployment is concerned. Even a relatively simpler control measure like imposing a ‘green tax’ on trucks entering NCT Delhi was dropped because the tax collection contractor said he couldn’t implement it!

Make no mistake, as a Delhi resident, I am all for anything which helps me breathe a little easier. But India’s urban pollution problem (not just Delhi — 13 of the world’s top 15 polluted cities are in India) needs a 360 degree approach and coordination between the Centre and States. Tilting at random windmills won’t help.

Published on December 22, 2021

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