Devil's Engine

"We told you so!…" Facts prove us right and confirm our worst fears. Car registration data in Delhi point to an explosive trend in diesel passenger car sales -- a shattering 106 percent annual incremental growth rate since 1998-99 as against 12 percent for petrol cars. This murky detail is straight out of the computers of the State Transport Authority of Delhi. The city, working hard to douse toxic diesel particulates from its bus fleet with CNG, completely missed to notice the problem shifting around.

Facts shock. Though the absolute numbers of diesel cars are still comparatively small, its rate of increase is phenomenal. The share of diesel cars, a mere 4 percent of the total new car registration in 1999 has climbed to 16 percent in 2003. The bigger jeeps or SUVs, taken separately, show a growth rate of 18 percent. Officials warn that the actual numbers of SUVs on Delhi’s road could be much higher due to daily influx of these from the surrounding satellite towns of Delhi. The enticing gap in the prices of diesel and petrol is the lure. Delhi, which has the highest per capita income among all the metros, also has the lowest diesel prices.

Taxi market was mandated by the Supreme Court to replace more than 8-year-old taxis with CNG taxis. This could contain the share of diesel taxis at 24 percent of the total new taxi registration during the last 5 years. CNG taxis are 57 percent of the new fleet. Mercy, diesel three-wheelers are banned in Delhi. With public transport buses, most taxis, and three wheelers effectively out of dirty diesel, personal car segment is riding high on cheap and toxic fuel.

Just to jog your memory a little, we wanted diesel car registration -- a very small number then -- to be banned in Delhi in 1998 while India still languished at Euro 0 standards. Deadly facts about diesel toxicity and evidence of the acute cancer-causing potential of diesel pollutants and their other health effects were pouring in. The big findings were that diesel fumes have a lot more particles than petrol exhaust and were several times more toxic. Globally it seemed that diesel was about to hit an impasse with health concerns mounting and no clear signs of technology solutions to bail it out.

California branding diesel PM as toxic air contaminant and proposing the most stringent fuel neutral standards from 2004 almost prophesied death of diesel. Around that time India had just about removed direct subsidy on diesel fuel but had no policy to eliminate cost advantages of diesel cars. Result: A whopping 300 percent increase in diesel car models. Customers were hopelessly spoilt for choice.

Our regulators missed the message then as they are missing it today. The industrialized countries, driven by health concerns, have since then set stringent emissions targets to force innovation and find solutions to the problem of toxic diesel emissions. Near zero sulphur diesel and advanced emissions control technologies are the priority actions.

They are also acting on studies that confirm that drastic reduction of diesel fuel sulfur reduces both particulate emissions and the carcinogenic and toxic effects of the particulate matter even in in-use vehicles. We, on the other hand, have failed to set any agenda to address the toxic risk from diesel particulate emissions from both new and in-use vehicles.

As diesel mania hits, regulators wag Euro II standards as adequate safeguard against high health costs associated with diesel. Euro II was brought forward only in a few cities after Supreme Court’s intervention in Delhi in 2000. Other Indian cities are still stuck with Euro I standards. Our government has no plans to adopt special measures to address the toxicity of poor-quality diesel, even as evidence mount that diesel particulates trigger serious health problems including lung cancer and cardio-respiratory ailments.

If ‘ban’ is a dirty word, stringent norms are a bane in a country dreaming to motorise fast. The government is obsessed with intermediate approaches to delay the process to get to clean diesel standards. The focus is on ineffectual steps – a combination of reduced sulphur levels (500 ppm to 350 ppm) and oxidation catalysts at best -- ignoring that even these are likely to enhance the health risk from diesel emissions. These gizmos would oxidise almost all fuel sulphur. Even at the 350 ppm level, emissions of deadlier and more toxic sulphates would increase over engine out levels. This can be worse than non-cat vehicles. Sulphate emissions from this young, expanding fleet would be a large part of the total PM emissions, closely linked to the fuel’s sulphur content

Indian cities that have already moved to Euro II standards, and, are already facing serious threat of dieselisation, must not delay adoption of Euro IV standards and 50 ppm sulphur fuels. Our regulators overlook the fact that by following European norms, we are inheriting many of their inconsistencies. Successive stages of European standards, though tighter, are still lenient on diesel. Diesel vehicles are legally allowed to emit more NOx and PM compared to petrol vehicles – and this is the most serious of our worries. Euro II norms allow diesel cars to emit 40 percent more nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbon than the corresponding petrol cars. Even Euro IV norms allow diesel cars to emit 3 times more NOx than petrol counterpart. Instead of following Europe’s mistakes loyally, we must skip to avoid them quickly.

Indian cities in the grip of rapid motorisation and with cheap diesel prices are headed for the most harmful dieselsiation of small car segment ever. We were told that the Ministry of Environment and Forests was looking at ways to eliminate cost advantages of diesel cars. A committee under the chairmanship of Raja Chelliah was expected to finalize the recommendations by this December. The draft report already admits that to avoid the environmental damages from diesel vehicles, the regulator should levy a tax based on average costs that emissions from diesel vehicles inflict on the society. The committee estimates that present value of net savings from a popular diesel car model over a period of 10 years is 23.76 per cent of its ex-showroom price. Therefore, it proposed an excise duty of equivalent amount on diesel cars to neutralise the price advantage and an additional annual emission tax.

The year is over with no action to address the fastest growing toxic threat on our roads. The next Union Budget is due for announcement in two months. The environment ministry must intervene immediately to get its fiscal peers to eliminate price advantage of diesel cars, make diesel vehicles pay for environmental damages and get a fiscal policy to bring forward clean diesel standards in critically polluted cities of India. Or else, stop them. Public health cannot be taken for a ride on devil’s engines!

Anumita Roychowdhury