Hush-hush public notice on emissions norms

We discovered this by sheer chance, buried in the website of the Union Ministry of Shipping Road Transport and Highways. This is a public notice soliciting public opinion on the unfinished agenda of the emissions standards roadmap finalised way back in 2003. This seeks Euro IV standards in 11 cities and Euro III in the rest of the country by 2010. But this notification was not given adequate publicity in the popular media. It is not even aiming to stir a public debate and animated scientific discussion.

For the regulators and the industry this notification is a mere routine and only a faithful execution of the Auto Fuel Policy dictum. For the country this is a lost opportunity to set new terms of debate and action. There were great expectations that the 2010 will come with more ambitious targets. The review process that was promised in 2003 to decide the new targets has overshot the timeline. Review will now be used to suggest the roadmap beyond 2010.

This notification is already so delayed that it simply leaves no time for public discussions as it has to hit the deadline of 2010. The appalling state of public engagement on issues of emissions regulations gives the jitters. If the air quality has improved in some cities of India it is mainly because public opinion exerted pressure on public policy. Yet the decision making system is marginalising the public voice.

Public consultation on norm setting is unimaginably superfluous, insular, and starkly inadequate compared to the best practices we have heard of. In the us, we are told, hundreds of comment letters flooded as well as tens and thousands of e-mails, and voice mails, covering a range of issues, poured in, when Tier 2 mobile source rules were being finalised. usepa responds to each and every comment, all the comments are vetted and if apt changes are made in the final regulations. Public hearings are organised in different locations and transcripts of the meetings are posted on the website. Supportive information used in developing the regulation is shared to help people understand and comment. Even after making these efforts usepa draws flak and is accused of not giving sufficient time to public discussions.

And here we are, -- unconcerned about missing the opportunity to engage to offset the pollution aftermath of vehicle explosion. Contrary to our hope that public opinion will gain in stature and power in decisions on emissions control policies, public engagement is becoming more difficult. In the past, dark cloud of smoke and body count could at least provoke anger and unrest.  Now people in big cities, expected to be more aware, do not see gross pollution any more. Smoke belching vehicles are mostly off the city limits. Euro II and Euro III vehicles – barring the errant suvs and ill maintained vehicles, do not belch anger stirring black smoke any more. This is the result of successful action but also the cause of complacency towards future action.

As the toxic cocktail of pollution becomes more invisible, more insidious and lethal, people have to rely more on science to understand --- how air pollution is still a growing threat to public health; grasp the peril of immediate exposure and delayed impacts of breathing poison; figure out the technical complexity involved in cutting emissions deeper. But this science is not there out in the open and within the reach of people to negotiate change.

Public debate on air pollution and emissions is inhibited primarily because people do not have information, or the understanding to confront the decision makers on the intricate details of rule making that decides the stringency of action. This becomes even more difficult to break as independent scientific opinion remains extremely cautious and non-interventionist.

Public notice on norms cannot play out its role if the Government does not provide the context of the regulation. Currently, there is no accompanying document to justify the new notification in the context of the emerging pollution challenge or establish why the original recommendations do not need modifications. Vehicle numbers have exploded, Indian car market has seen unprecedented shift towards diesel, particulate levels have remained unceasingly high and rising in many more cities, and newer pollutants like nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are rising. The severity of the threat would have come out sharper if health and exposure quality were also on the agenda. Unfortunately, there are still no official figures for the illness and death toll despite the specific recommendation of the Auto Fuel policy to the government to undertake assessment of health risk.

Air pollution context has changed in India. The recent revision of the ambient air quality standards by the Central Pollution Control Board will further raise the bar of protection. Air pollution science demands so to provide adequate margin of safety. Mobile source norm setters must understand that if the new ambient air quality standards are applied to the current pollution levels, violations and exceedences will increase. Tighter NO2 standard increases the number of highly polluted cities from 1 to 14, moderately polluted from 33 to 54 and reduces the number of low pollution cities from 87 to 53. Even for PM10 CPCB should have adopted the WHO principle of setting intermediate goals of reaching very low threshold. But it did not touch the current PM10 standards on the grounds of its persistently high levels.  But the privileged 11 cities show drop in PM levels. Cities like Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad are even close to the current standards, and need newer targets to push action. The list of privileged cities certainly needs to be more inclusive.

We have not learnt our lessons well. The chosen 11 cities have gained because people in few of them had rebelled to demand stronger action to escape from the choking haze of pollution. But the irony is that even today, the onus is on the victims of air pollution to prove, again and again, city after city, that air pollution makes them ill and kills many. Despite having an Air Act and ambient air quality standard it is not seen as the Government’s regulatory duty and a statutory mandate to take uniformly strong action in all cities that exceed permissible limits. Now that India is finally adopting uniform health based air quality standards in the place of land-use based standards, norm setting process for vehicles must also recognise that all individuals have equal rights to be protected from air pollution, especially toxic vehicular emissions.

We have to now seriously expand the public sphere in the decision making process, so far enabled only by court action. Yet once again the mistake is being repeated. We know deliberations on the post-2010 roadmap based on the results of the pollution inventory and source apportionment in five cities has begun. But it is shrouded in secrecy. If public opinion remains uninformed and unresponsive, then only technical and affordability criteria will overpower to protect economic interests. Public health will take back seat.

If regulations are expected to engineer change, then only consultants and industry cannot remain privy to the policy related science and discussions. We need public scrutiny of the missing links in the finer details of the emissions standards regulations that can blunt the edges of the regulations. Have the full information on the regulatory checks needed to ensure durable emissions performance of vehicles over useful life. Know the reasons for short cuts in the proposed rules for on-board-diagnostic systems in new cars. Challenge the logic of keeping the tighter standards confined to only 11 cities when more cities are gasping. Why health concerns are only cosmetic and not the driver. Demand that the exposure risks from vehicular fumes requires quick alignment of emissions standards with Europe with reinforced steps by 2012.

Public engagement places enormous responsibility on the state regulators and the scientific community to inform, engage, build public awareness and empower. The country cannot risk another spell of silence that had numbed open and informed criticism when the first Auto Fuel Policy was tabled in 2002. The challenge for 2010 and beyond has undergone generation change. Regulations will have to live up to this challenge and gain public trust.

-- Anumita Roychowdhury
Right To Clean Air Campaign