Exhausting the options

  • 14/04/1995

ENVIRONMENTAL problems, like other real-world concerns, never make for soft solutions. Even on the eve of its implementation, the laudable scheme whereby all new cars registered in Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras will be mandatorily equipped with catalytic converters was dogged by controversy. Telltale ironies about April 1, Fool's Day, the designated date for the measure to come into force, are not quite as facetious as they may first seem. The 3 witches cooking up the noxious brew of pollution -- automobile users, manufacturers and the government -- are choking on their own smog and still wondering about who is to pay to put an end to it. Both manufacturers and users are pushing the hat at the government, which continues to cringe and whine that the matter must be settled between the two.

Fortunately for all of them, high level bureaucratic initiatives are revving up for substantial cuts in the customs duty on imported catalytic converters. There is loose talk of this largesse being complemented with government subsidies of up to 50 per cent. It's a short-term feelgood policy. Apart from squeezing already strained government funds, it will negate the elementary and just wisdom behind the principle that it is the polluter who must cough up -- through his nose, if need be.

This means that automobile manufacturers must charge from the end users the Rs 12,000-15,000 extra per catalytic convertor-fitted vehicle. This is what has been done over the past 2 decades in industrialised countries. If India needs a precedent from economic peers, it is there in the industrialising, developing nations of Brazil, Mexico, Korea and Taiwan, who introduced stringent vehicular emission norms in the late '80s, and in Chile, Hong Kong and Singapore, who joined the club this decade.

No end users balked from paying for cleaner exhaust in the abovementioned countries. They knew that if they didn't, their children would go through life hyperventilating. It can hardly be argued that Indians do not love their lives much. What is needed is that little stern tweak that governance always keeps in reserve for citizens spoilt silly by things like a subsidy regime that has long passed its rationale.

But these very same people readily agree that many diseases among India's urban population stem directly from unchecked vehicular pollution. Take the case of carbon monoxide: every year, some 265,000 tonnes of the noxious stuff is released in Delhi, 180,000 tonnes in Bombay and 177,000 in Calcutta. Emission figures for the oxides of nitogen and lead are equally daunting.

Much of this pollution is caused by automobile exhaust, which is increasing rapidly even as the poor get poorer and the middle class goes into autodestruct. In 1985, there were 15.40 million cars and jeeps in India. Today, they number 25.40 million; the projection for AD 2000 is 33.14 million. Clearly, large numbers of Indians are financially capable of buying vehicles. As clearly, they are capable of paying for any design upgradation that would benefit those who have to breathe in their exhausts.

Letting car users have catalytic converters free, or subsidised, allows them to shrug off the consequences of their dirty driving on to others. That they should be allowed whole or partial exemption is an idea whose prevalence is possible only in an economy which forces the burden of exploitative despoilation of the environment onto those who are innocent of the act, or worse still, its victims.

Indeed, there is a very reasonable case for imposing even more duties on cars. There is no reason why manufacturers and sellers should not be actually taxed -- that is, a punitive cess on a regular basis -- for producing something which ultimately always degrades the environment. Further, catalytic convertors are only a single element of the broader strategy to curb automobile pollution. The other elements of this strategy also demand considerable financial outlay and infrastructure.

For one, the government will have to put into place an extensive monitoring network to check cars for adherence to prescribed emission norms. This exercise has been carried out, but on a sporadic and insincere basis. Automobile owners in India run their vehicles through the kind of wear and tear that would be unimaginable in most countries abroad -- the cost to the economy and the environment is evident. Typically, an Indian car has first ownership of 15-17 years in comparison to 3-5 years in Germany or the US. The concept rules here of running things of mechanical origin to the ground -- literally; which is why there is a need to create public awareness, as well as enforced practices, towards reducing the total distance of car travel undertaken by any person, the Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT).

In India, where vehicles move as much through the inventiveness of the country's mechanics as of prayer, much of this strictness may sound out of place. However, automotive environmentalism is already in practice, or being realistically conceived, in countries which have seriously and intensely hunted for solutions to the problem of vehicular pollution. We can learn from them, or we can waste time and ultimately discover that any policy to sustain the environment must be underpaid by those who use, and abuse, it.

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