By Moksha Pillai
“Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting. We allow them to disperse as we have been ignorant of their value.”
The very first case of smog that was catastrophic and life-threatening is said to have occurred during the early fifties. Termed as the infamous “The Great London Smog”, the impact of the apocalypse resulted in over 12,000 deaths and forced the British authorities to draft the Clean Air Act which has, since then, been strictly implemented till date. The cities of Mexico and Beijing followed suit until their respective governments decided to prepare a detailed contingency plan by incorporating the compulsory use of catalytic converts in every car, improving public transportation and highlighting the restrictions of vehicular traffic that came into operation every time Particulate Matter (PM) levels reached 221.
Delhi snags the title
Today, however, the title of the most polluted city in the world has shifted to Delhi where fine PM levels are twenty times that of the prescribed World Health Organisation (WHO) standards. For a city that has always been bursting at the seams, New Delhi bulged up from 4.13 lakhs of what was India’s 25.2 Crore population in 1911 to 1.68 Crores i.e. 1.39% of the nation’s 120 crore population in 2011.This unprecedented spurt in Delhi’s demographic characteristics has put its environmental sustainability, ecology and air quality under tremendous jeopardy. This burden of has multiplied rapidly as it intrinsically suffers from the “Urban Heat Island Effect” compounded by the effects of urbanisation, climate change and unequal rural growth.
According to a 2016 report by Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, cars and jeeps were said to emit less than 10% of PM in Delhi, while trucks were found to be the bigger culprits contributing up to 15% of the PM. However, one of the most prominent and hazardous contributors to Delhi’s toxic air blanket was the road dust, which accounted for about 35% of PM in the air leading to visibility issues, followed by other factors such as domestic cooking, slash-and-burn of crops, use of diesel cars, power plants, and industries. A Seattle-based “Global Burden of Disease” study estimated that 586,787 premature deaths in India were attributable to fine particulate matter pollution in 2013, resulting in strokes, heart ailments, lung cancer and both chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma.
The need for urgent action
Taking into account the serious pollution levels in Delhi and adjoining areas, Petroleum Ministry in consultation with Public Oil Marketing Companies decided for the preponement of BS-VI grade auto fuels in National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi from April 1, 2018, instead of April 1, 2020, to help mitigate the problem. The road to the final solution requires immense political will, unified planning, scientific thinking, engineering innovation, administrative compliance and cross-national cooperation.
Researchers and scientists at the Centre for Environment Studies (CES) believe that the introduction of Bharat Stage-VI norms and utilisation of the BS-VI fuel shall bring down sulphur levels by 5 times and improve emissions from the existing fleet. However, Greenpeace India considers the move “to be showcasing the government’s commitment towards cutting down emissions” and asserted that it should be expanded to other mega cities as well as across North India.
What may hinder the expected progress
Though well-intentioned, the abrupt shift in policy is worrying. The preponement shifts the implementation date by two years at a time when the key stakeholders involved—the auto sector and oil companies—are working overtime to make this a reality, ensuring the timely establishment of their modified-supply chain and supporting infrastructures such as pipelines, depots and retail outlets. The auto-sector, however, seems to be the worst hit as it has just about recovered from a huge challenge in moving from BS III to BS IV earlier this year following a Supreme Court directive to liquidate old stocks.
While, the paradigm shift in the fuel reduces the expected PM in the atmosphere, the compatibility of existing BS-III and BS-IV car models with the BS-VI fuel are yet to be tested. Other operational and implementation hiccups may surface in the form of public uproar amongst the car manufacturers who are yet to launch their customised BS-VI range for the National Capital Region (NCR) alone since the fuel will not be available elsewhere in the country. The same may also hold true for the two-wheeler industry where no manufacturer is ready with its BS VI options. Additionally, if we are to assume that BS-VI fuel can only be supplied to corresponding BS-VI cars and two-wheelers, there would practically be no new registrations in Delhi from April 2018.
Challenges posed to the manufacturers
For the moment, the primary challenge for companies is to handle the cost of fuel injection systems and ensure that a price-sensitive segment such as bikes and scooters can still remain within the reach of customers from 2020. It may still be “work-in-progress” for the likes of companies such as Hero, Honda, TVS, Bajaj and Yamaha, but no simple exercise by any stretch of the imagination.
Thus, on the face of it, there is no debating the fact that any move to clean up vehicular emissions is welcome. However, in this case, it is the abrupt shift in policies that is a matter of concern as advancing the BS-VI deadline may do more harm than good and end up putting enormous pressure on auto and oil companies. When profit is the motor of the society, destruction is considered as a sign of progress. We can only hope that we don’t end up polluting the remnants of our fragile ecosystem and trigger drastic and unsustainable after-effects of this sudden regulatory intervention.
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