Cheap fuel, high cost

ENVIRONMENTALISTS and experts have condemned the Union government's decision to lower the price of diesel and have called it "irresponsible and unfortunate". Diesel is primarily responsible for worsening air pollution levels in the cities, they said. This move will encourage consumers to switch from petrol vehicles to diesel ones.

On January 8, 1999, V K Ramamurthy, Union minister for petroleum and natural gas, announced that diesel will now be approximately cheaper by 10 per cent. "There is no rationale behind this decision. It will increase the use of diesel in the luxury sector rather than the transport sector," says Ravi Agarwal, director, Srishti, a New Delhi-based NGO.

Diesel prices are on "adjusted import parity" - they have to be revised on a monthly basis in line with international prices. Since May 1998 international prices have fallen by over 25 per cent. Diesel will now be cheaper by 98 paise per litre in Delhi, Rs 1.05 in Calcutta, Rs 1.15 in Mumbai and Rs 1.10 in Chennai.

Recent studies reveal that diesel engines emit about 100 times more toxic particulate matter than petrol engines. "Diesel consumption is six times more than petrol in the country. It will be extremely difficult to control suspended particulate matter (SPM) count in the atmosphere if the government provides such incentives to diesel users," warns H B Mathur, professor (emeritus), Delhi College of Engineering.

C K Varshney, professor and dean, school of environmental sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, says the reduction in diesel prices shows that the government wants to give more incentives to the luxury sector thus helping affluent people to pollute more," he adds. As it is easier to meet emission standards for diesel vehicles than that of petrol vehicles, automobile manufacturers have been pressing the government to provide more subsidised diesel. Now, the diesel vehicle manufacturers seem to have succeeded in their attempt, say experts. "Reduction of diesel prices is a deliberate and willful attempt by the government to encourage polluting automobile manufacturers to produce polluting vehicles," adds Mathur.

Delhi is the fourth largest polluted city in the world due to its high SPM count. If the use of diesel vehicles increase, it is bound to increase the SPM count in the atmosphere. Experts say diesel fumes are more dangerous than was earlier thought. Diesel contains sulphur which is directly correlated with particulate emissions. The Air Resources Board of California, the World Health Organisation and the Ministry of Occupational Health in Germany have already found diesel particulate matter to be carcinogenic. By reducing the price of diesel, the government intends to help the agricultural sector and avoid adulteration of diesel with subsidised kerosene. But many experts do not buy this explanation. The biggest beneficiaries of the cheap diesel and subsidised kerosene have been the urban consumers, says Mathur. Contrary to popular belief, only 12 per cent of diesel is consumed by the agriculture sector. In fact, poor people do not really benefit from subsidised diesel or kerosene, says Shankar Mukherjee, chief quality control manager, northern region, Indian Oil Corporation. The main beneficiary is the luxury sector.

Meanwhile, the government is taking some steps to reduce the sulphur content in diesel. K P Shahi, advisor to the ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, recently, said that the government had spent around us $1.34 billion to reduce the sulphur content in diesel from one per cent to 0.25 per cent by weight. He was speaking at a seminar on fuel and vehicular technology organised by the Association of Indian Automobile Manufacturers. The low sulphur diesel will be available across the country from October 1, 1999, he said.

But experts say that it is not enough. At a time when the quality of diesel is already worse in India, the government's decision will not only increase diesel consumption but put the life of its citizens in jeopardy.