Devil in the diesel

  • 30/03/1999

When industry starts fooling the public what does one do? There is sufficient scientific evidence to show diesel fumes are particularly noxious for our health. We also know that we use an extraordinary large amount of very bad quality diesel. We even know that the standards for diesel emissions are as low as the level of technology. And we can definitely smell, breathe and indeed suffer the pollution in our cities.

But the automobile manufacturers are keen to turn a blind eye to these facts. Diesel is cheap. A huge price deferential between petrol and diesel exists because while petrol is taxed, diesel is not. Diesel prices are intentionally kept low to promote its use in agriculture, to run public transport and to limit its adulteration with kerosene. But when industry can make money out of this market distortion, why not?

Telco, already leading the band with its existing models, now plans to market the diesel Indica. Of the 60,000 Indicas booked so far, 95 per cent are the diesel versions. Maruti is keen to catch up with its own diesel vehicles too. And of course, Mahindra, Ford, General Motors, Hindustan Motors and Premier Automobiles Ltd are all in this game. Mercedes-Benz is even offering luxury at dirt-cheap running costs, while Bajaj Auto and Crompton Greaves are desperately competing to produce diesel three-wheelers. People living in polluted and already unhealthy cities like Delhi must remember that this diesel boom will only make breathing more difficult.

One, a city like Delhi already uses more diesel than possibly any Western metropolis. Over the years, its thirst for diesel has only grown. Between 1990-91 and 1996-97, the city's diesel consumption grew by almost 70 per cent, while petrol consumption saw a rise of only 30 per cent.

Two, pollution from diesel is either already very high in Delhi or rapidly increasing. The fuel is the main source of three highly toxic pollutants: oxides of nitrogen (NOx), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and suspended particulate matter (SPM). As of now, some 95 per cent to 96 per cent of the NOx and SO2, and 100 per cent of the SPM are emitted by diesel vehicles.

Three, diesel produces extremely toxic particles less than 10 microns in size. These are known as PM10, which penetrate deep into the lungs and affect them severely. A recent UK study showed that 90 per cent of diesel particles are less than 1 micron in size. This particulate matter in diesel exhaust is coated with highly carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH).

Last year, after a decade of research, the California Air Resources Board formally designated diesel particulates as toxic and carcinogenic. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has also drawn a similar conclusion, that SPM is the most serious of air pollutants, killing about 460,000 people each year. Some 135,000 of these are victims of chronic asthma. The rest die of cardiovascular or heart diseases - diseases Delhites are familiar with.

Fourth, whereas even the cleanest diesel is being labelled a killer, we add to our misery by using possibly the dirtiest diesel in the world. And where countries using far less diesel have strong standards, we - using more diesel - have low fuel quality norms. Delhi imports supposedly clean diesel. But the sulphur content of this 'clean' diesel is 250 times higher than the cleanest diesel in the world.

Fifth, the quality of diesel engines is poor. The automobile industry is currently beating its chest saying that it will meet European standards. Which European standards? Under the emission norms already agreed upon, that too after much dilution, this 'world-class' automobile industry will meet European I standards in the year 2000. Remember that these are standards Europe enforced in 1992. The same cars in Europe will move to Euro III standards by 2000. We also have to remember that for diesel, the European standards are less stringent than the US norms, which, in turn, are lower than California standards.

In polluted and smog-hit Paris, diesel is being called "the engines of the devil". We would hate to term respected Indian businesses similarly. But given the current industry stance of blocking any move to control dieselisation of private vehicles, we would not be surprised.

After trying to twist public opinion with scientific hogwash, the second most common refrain used by industry is to bemoan its investments in this sector. We, however, have no sympathy for this. Industry managers have known that diesel is under scientific scrutiny, is a health hazard and is extremely polluting.

They have taken the risk to invest despite knowing this, because they hoped to make money. When old three-wheelers were found polluting, public action demanded their removal from the roads. We cannot have different standards now: the poor auto owner is driven off, but rich manufacturers are allowed to make profits by killing us. This would be the highest degree of hypocrisy, and Delhi's rich middle class, which allows this, should never again grumble about the state of pollution.

- Anil Agarwal

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