Too much at stake

  • 14/12/2002

Four oil companies - Indian Oil Corporation, Hindustan Petroleum Corporation, Bharat Petroleum Corporation and Reliance Industries - have signed a memorandum with industry and scientific institutions for a study on "appropriate solutions" to air pollution. They will jointly pay for this study, which they say is necessary because current approaches to pollution control lack the wisdom of the famous adage, "think global and act local".

The spectrum of their research is wide and vital: Take six cities, inventory pollution, conduct source apportionment studies to assess the contribution of vehicular emissions on air quality. The outcome will be a road map of short and long term measures to ensure "cleaner ambience for all", says the memorandum's terms of reference.

The study is important, no doubt. Good and reliable policy-making needs good and reliable data and vision. But will it be innocent? Can all be well when a study - that aims to influence policy - is funded by the very interests that concoct the pollution in the first place?

I don't believe in conspiracy theories. What I have in mind is precedent. Think of the horror stories when tobacco companies paid for research on linkages between tobacco and cancer. The studies were all carefully and subtly directed, and always came to the same conclusion. There wasn't enough evidence - ever - to 'definitely' prove the linkage. Tobacco was never responsible; it was always something else.

Like tobacco, air pollution control is not a soft green issue. It hits the biggest economic players - the automobile and fuel companies - and these agencies now, it seems to me, are hell-bent on twisting future policy in their interest. While independent and credible research is all the more important in an increasingly technocratic society, science is also an easily and dangerously manipulable tool.

Take the Auto Fuel Policy report chaired by R A Mashelkar, a respected scientist and director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, which included members from top research institutions and policy makers. It is constituted under the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas.

All very respectable, I repeat. You would then be surprised (or not) to know that the report - very scientifically, in many volumes and dense text - proclaims that available studies "do not establish a cause-effect relationship between pollutants and health". It then goes on to argue that in India medical studies on patients suffering from diseases "appear to be lacking".

I, for one, fail to understand the point. Global studies on exposure of thousands to ambient air have eliminated all other causes (smoking, or lifestyle) to clearly indict air contaminants like the tiny PM 10. These studies are rigorous. Scientifically validated. So, why do we not believe them? What makes Indians so special, that until research has been done on us, we cannot use this data to design our pollution control policy?

Are vehicles a problem? Yes, says the erudite report, but also no. It uses studies it commissioned to equally respectable scientific institutions to disprove that vehicles or fuels are a serious problem for pollution in cities. It is another matter that the studies the report uses would not withstand the scrutiny of even the most lay readers. There are lots of graphs, charts and fancy equations. Its sentences are carefully nuanced: "much less is known to what extent PM 10 - respirable particulates - from road transport exhaust is responsible for the health effects."

Are we at all surprised, then, that the committee recommends to the government that nothing much needs to be done any more? The road map to improve vehicular technology and fuel quality should be as suggested by many committees, many times, over many years: bring in Euro III - marginally and incrementally better standards than what we have today in our dirty and polluted metros - in other cities by 2010. Spare a thought for the report. It has created a new subject of study: living and dying with pollution.

Both studies work hard to avoid any hard measures for their own product. In the case of the Mashelkar report, the chapter on adulteration is the weakest. It fails to even acknowledge what is so well known: that adulteration is rampant and that, worse, it is legalised because current testing methods cannot even detect what is adulterated and what is not. In the oil industry memorandum, it is equally fascinating to find that the fuel quality studies, that will recommend the best policy options for fuel mix, do not even want to study clean diesel. Only 350 ppm sulphur fuel, as against the 500 ppm sulphur diesel we have today, is good enough.

Therefore, the boundaries of research - indeed its very quest - are limited by the outcomes that are desired. Again, why be surprised.

But if we are not surprised, at least let us not allow this to happen. Time and again. We are allowing the other side to become more blatant, more obnoxious and more powerful. We are weak; institutions to protect the environment have been emasculated. Today the Ministry of Environment and Forests has no intellectual or scientific capacity. And worse, it has even less interest in its own agenda.

It may be in the combined interests of polluters and ministry babus to make environmental institutions irrelevant. But this is not acceptable. Too much is at stake. For all of the rest of us.

- Sunita Narain

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