Is Naik serious about Auto Fuels Policy?

The ministry of petroleum has cleverly reduced air pollution control to a high school debate on compressed natural gas (cng) versus diesel. During the recent meeting with prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, the Union government dismissed the plea for an ordinance to override the Supreme Court orders to convert Delhi's bus fleet to cng . But newspapers did report that a committee will be set up under R A Mashelkar, director-general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (csir), to recommend a mix of fuels like cng and Euro II diesel (widely publicised by the pro-diesel lobby as low sulphur diesel (lsd) which has 500 parts per million (ppm) sulphur) for the metros of India. The findings of this committee, if it is ever set up, would have major implications for pollution control.

In the entire media reportage, two things have got lost. One, the Supreme Court is not promoting cng , lsd or any other fuel but is trying to clean up the air of Delhi and hopefully set a model for the rest of urban India suffering from serious air pollution. Two, there is already a report prepared by an Inter-Ministerial Task Force for evolving a policy and road map on fuel quality, submitted only a few months ago, but is gathering dust. Now petroleum minister (or should I say, monopolist) Ram Naik wants yet another committee.

The automobile industry is currently producing Euro II cars for the National Capital Region under the orders of the Supreme Court. These vehicles were to come to India in 2005. Slowly, these vehicles are being introduced into the four metros across the country with the availability of Euro II petrol and diesel. But the rest of the country will benefit from Euro II vehicles and fuels, believe it or not, only by 2005, nine years behind Europe - which already has reasonably clean air and a pretty stable urban human and vehicular population. Our refineries will continue to produce Euro I quality diesel and petrol till then.

The road map committee offered two suggestions. One, refineries should produce Euro III petrol and diesel (350 ppm sulphur diesel, introduced in Europe in 2000) for six metro-cities (Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad and Bangalore) by 2005. But, the second option, which it considered more desirable (because the first option would hardly reduce pollution) is to introduce Euro-III fuels across the country by 2005 and ultra-low sulphur diesel (ulsd) with 10 ppm sulphur for the metrocities by then.

But six months have gone by since this exercise was conducted. Naik's ministry has not even cared to respond. If there is no effort by his ministry to deal with pollution problems, then what else can we expect, but the Supreme Court ordering cng for the Delhi's bus fleet despite Naik's discomfiture over cng. Even Chandrababu Naidu has announced that he would like to move all Hyderabad buses to liquefied petroleum gas (lpg) and cng , having been deeply impressed by the cng buses that he saw in Beijing.

If there is any benefit from globalisation, it is that a nation can avail of the latest technology worldwide. With so many global auto players now operating in India, they can easily be forced to improve the emissions of their vehicles. The Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (siam) has already presented a road map for vehicular emissions. This road map can be greatly improved but even this cannot move ahead unless Naik is prepared to give the corresponding fuel.

Unfortunately, Naik is not the only anti-environment minister. His colleague, B C Khanduri, who runs the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways is another one. At a meeting in January this year, Central Pollution Control Board (cpcb) chairperson asked whether there was any problem in imposing stringent fuel and vehicle standards for air pollution hotspots like the Indian metros in advance of the rest of the country. Representatives of the automobile industry made agreeable noises. But the mrth representative protested. "Such norms would open up a Pandora's box and other state governments and high courts would demand similar norms." After that the auto and petroleum industry representatives shut up.

Either we meet the air pollution challenge or we just forget it. This debate over cng vs diesel is quite puerile. We know that India has allowed millions to die because of lack of food and clean water over the last 50 years. Why doesn't Naik simply say: What does it matter if a million or more die because of air pollution? The statistics will not even say so. They will call these murders by innocuous names like cancer, asthma and heart problems.

The problem is simple: The hon'ble minister Naik does not believe that pollution or public health is an issue for governance. He has produced lsd , Euro II diesel, call it what you want, and that's it. This problem runs through his ministry. A few years ago, the Environment Pollution Control Authority (epca) had gone to see the then petroleum secretary, T Vijayraghavan, to plead for rapid cleaning up of petroleum fuels. The secretary left everyone speechless when he asked, "Is air pollution really a serious problem in Delhi?" Nothing obviously came out of the meeting. Sometimes I truly wonder: Are we chasing some chimera?