SIAM s small step forward

  • 14/05/2000

Venu Srinivasan, the current head of the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers ( siam ), needs a pat on his back for the first proactive step proposed by the auto industry to control the growing pollution. siam recently proposed vehicular norms for different types of vehicles going well into the first decade of the 21st century. But as our colleagues in the Centre for Science and Environment's Our Right to Clean Air Campaign put it, "This step is a bit too little and too late." Even if we forget the 'late' part, siam needs to understand why the proposals are too inadequate.

One can ask why is siam only proposing European norms for vehicular emissions when there are tighter norms in the world. This is presumably because India and Europe are closely tied to each other in trade and, therefore, if Indian norms mimic Euro norms, it makes it easier for auto manufacturers. But, the Euro norms have been fairly slack, especially on particulates, and criticism of these norms has been growing. Whereas particulates are relatively low in most of Europe's urban air, they are often the worst pollutant in most of India's urban air.

Influenced by its powerful diesel engine industry, the eu has allowed diesel cars to have far more lax standards, especially for particulates. Studies in Europe itself are showing that even Euro iv norms to be implemented there in 2005 are so weak that they will not even encourage auto-makers to use the emerging technology of particulate traps which could cut pollution further. Therefore, the very idea that we should implement Euro norms without understanding the environmental and industrial interests of the Europeans should be taken with a pinch of salt, regardless of siam 's level of comfort with them.

But beyond all this lies a major problem that has not been addressed by siam . Slowly tightening vehicular emission norms is an 'incremental strategy' for air pollution control. But siam needs to ask whether an incremental strategy alone will work in India? Delhi is already so polluted that such incremental strategies would never help to control its pollution especially with population and urban growth taking place simultaneously. But there are already several cities which are in a worse state than Delhi and many others are catching up fast - well within the time-frame that siam is talking about its emission standards. How does siam intend to deal with that situation? Now that it has hired a few technical experts, according to us mainly to counter the onslaught of the environmental community, why doesn't it employ them productively to come up with a package of policies that will help all Indian cities to achieve clean air by, say, 2005 or 2010? There is no doubt that the technical language of siam 's affidavits to the Supreme Court has greatly improved in recent months even if it is to stop every 'green proposal' made. But surely this is not the only use of experts that our auto captains can make?

Our biggest worry, however, is not just the weakness of our industrial captains to take adequate notice of environmental and public health concerns but even more so of our political captains. The auto industry recently had a meeting with the minister of heavy industry Manohar Joshi to discuss the possible impact of World Trade Organisation ( wto) rules applicable to the auto industry from early next year. The political heavyweight, according to newspaper reports, assured the industry that he sees it as a key to India's industrial growth and will soon come out with a policy to help them deal with their problems. The big fear is that the wto rules will allow import of second-hand cars, especially from Japan, which will adversely affect the Indian industry. The industry is apparently asking for a high customs duty on these cars. But we are sure that this wonderful minister will not consult the environmental community while framing his auto industry policy totally disregarding its existing and future public health impacts.

In fact, the answer to the above problem lies in environmental norms rather than customs duties, a solution that even Taiwan, which is far more pro-capitalist than India, is exploring. wto allows a country to impose non-tariff barriers to trade if a country wants to protect public health or the environment but with the proviso that the rules must apply equally to foreign and domestic car-makers. Therefore, if the sale of vehicles with Euro ii or iii standards is permitted in India, only an imported second-hand vehicle meeting these standards can enter India. Why doesn't the minister ask the auto industry to take a proactive stand and accept Euro iii standards by, say, 2002? They will keep out the foreign devil as well as help to clean India's urban air faster.

Taiwan is not yet a member of wto but is likely to become one soon. In order to prevent diesel pollution, the Taiwanese have currently banned the import of diesel cars. But trust the eu to insist that it will only support Taiwan's entry to wto if it lifts this ban. So the Taiwanese Environment Protection Authority in a meeting with its auto manufacturers, all of whom import the engines, have agreed that they will protect the local industry as well as the country's urban air quality by implementing the strictest