The Pollution-vehicle link
Dithering Governments, Reluctant Auto Makers, Black Lungs
Sources of air pollution are many and diverse. But none are as lethal as vehicles, as they are responsible for very high exposure. Vehicular emissions take place in the breathing zone of people. “So those who live or work in close proximity to heavily-travelled roadways are subject to high levels of exposure”, say experts.
And now there are plenty of studies to show constant exposure to auto exhausts causes severe health damages. Motor vehicles emit some of the deadliest cancer producing compounds. They also induce chronic and acute respiratory disorders.
In the global scenario, some of the worst cases of outdoor air pollution are now found in Indian cities, including the medium-sized and smaller towns. Urban air here is a cocktail of particulates and gaseous products, including nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur dioxides (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO), benzene, ozone (O3), a range of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and a variety of volatile organic compounds.
But the overriding fear is concerning the chillingly high levels of particulate matter (PM), especially of size less than 10 micron (PM10), detected in the air. These finer particles, which are generated by combustion of fuels, travel deep into the lungs. Owing to their innate chemical properties and size, they can kill even at lower concentrations. No wonder during the past few years, people here have been desperately looking out for tools to assess the problem and to find ways to combat the menace.
India: Missed Opportunties
Yet, cutting pollution from vehicles is proving to be the toughest part of the pollution control challenge. Why?
Is it because we produce extremely polluting cars which should be henceforth banned?
Is it because government-owned refineries are flooding cities with dirty fuels?
Or is it because no one is really planning to meet the traffic needs of cities?
Interestingly, India began regulating vehicular emissions in 1991, much before other Asian countries had even begun the process. But then it fell behind, slowly losing speed even as the number of vehicles in the Indian roads skyrocketed, and pollution levels scaled unprecedented heights. Held back by a reluctant automobile industry, that fought hard to keep the standards lax, it adopted the Euro I standards as late as 2000— eight years after Europe!
Prodded repeatedly by the Supreme Court to introduce stronger regulations, the government finally came up with the Auto Fuel Policy in 2003. As of now, only 11 cities have implemented Euro III, while the rest of the country has only moved to Euro II. The goal is to nudge the 11 to adopt Euro IV by 2010, as the others reach the Euro III mark. The process is further slowed down by the government-owned refineries. There is a stubborn resistance from them to produce cleaner fuels needed to run the cleaner, less polluting vehicles.
The Diesel Menace
But, is India really making a whole-hearted attempt to shift to cleaner vehicle technologies? Why then is it favouring diesel over petrol? Diesel engines do have some attractive features. They are more fuel-efficient than petrol engines, deriving more energy per unit of fuel used. So till recently, they used to dominate the heavy-duty vehicles sector. But now, taking over the personal car segment. Analysts predict that diesel car sales will grow by almost 40-50 per cent by 2010.
Most frighteningly, the Indian government, till date, has no policy either to hold car companies or refineries accountable for the public health fallout.