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Death by Breath: Thirst for diesel food for poison

From vehicles to gensets, 40% surge in diesel use means more cancer-causing chemicals in air.

Written by Pritha Chatterjee , Aniruddha Ghosal | New Delhi | Updated: April 7, 2015 9:23:16 am
death by breath, diesel emmission, delhi At last count, Delhi had guzzled 11.32 lakh tonnes of diesel in 2013-14 alone, 39.6% more than the 8.11 lakh tonnes it consumed just four years ago. (Source: Express photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

You might not know it, but the next time you park your diesel vehicle at the shopping mall and answer that ringing phone, you would have done your bit to release a small portion of poison into Delhi’s air. Not once, but thrice. From the exhaust fumes of your car to the generator sets that keep the mall alive, and the mobile tower active.

So much so, that experts, officials and doctors have identified the staggering surge in consumption of diesel — its fumes contain cancer-causing chemicals and that killer dust called respirable suspended particulate matter (RSPM) — as one of the main reasons for the city’s air turning toxic.

READ: How, why diesel is dirty

At last count, Delhi had guzzled 11.32 lakh tonnes of diesel in 2013-14 alone, 39.6% more than the 8.11 lakh tonnes it consumed just four years ago. And at last count, its air was choked with 316 µg/m3 of RSPM, 16 times over the permissible limit, making it the world’s most polluted city.

“What was the use of bringing CNG and the Metro when you ignored diesel which was staring you in the face?” asked retired Justice Kuldip Singh, whose rulings on green issues in the Supreme Court set the stage for the judgement in 1998 on using compressed natural gas in all public transport in Delhi.

“Look at the number of vehicles, particularly SUVs, using diesel. About 55-60 per cent of the total number of vehicles sold now runs on diesel. You allowed the numbers to go absolutely haywire. Look at the number of generator sets shooting up. If there was any will in the government, we would not have seen such an obvious mistake in policy,” he added.

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Heading the Delhi government at that time, when consumption of diesel started climbing, was Sheila Dikshit — when contacted, she pointed to the then UPA government at the Centre, headed by her own Congress party. “The problem was that while we were willing to ban diesel, the neighbouring states weren’t. Even if you ban diesel in Delhi, it wouldn’t serve the purpose unless you simultaneously do it in Haryana, UP and Rajasthan,” Dikshit told The Indian Express.

READ: For generators, rules in place but no one to enforce them

In 2007, the former chief minister said she wrote to the Centre, seeking approval for a proposal to ban the registration of diesel cars in the capital and requesting separate emission norms for vehicles in the National Capital Region (NCR), including the satellite cities of Noida, Gurgaon and Ghaziabad.

In the letter, she expressed the concern that an increase in diesel cars was depleting the gains of CNG. In March 2008, T R Baalu, the then union minister for shipping, road transport and highways, denied both requests, saying the government couldn’t impose a ban on vehicles plying on a certain type of fuel.

That was the same year when RSPM in the city’s air began its upward journey from 161 µg/m3 in 2007, drying up the gains of the CNG move.

How diesel blocked out CNG

According to Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA), mandated by Supreme Court to monitor air pollution in Delhi, one of the reasons why the city started guzzling more diesel since that low of 811 metric tonnes in 2010 was the sharply diminishing gap between the cost of CNG and diesel.

In June 2010, the cost of a litre of diesel was Rs 40.10, and CNG Rs 27.50 per kg. Today, diesel costs Rs 48.26 a litre and CNG Rs 37.55 per kg.

The EPCA mapped out that gap in a report submitted to Supreme Court in February last year. “In 2002-03, CNG was cheaper than diesel by about 46.71 per cent. Between 2004 and 2009 the difference widened further to more than 50 per cent as diesel prices increased… In December 2013, the price differential (had) plummeted to 7.35 per cent,” the report said.

“High CNG costs hurt public transport and undermine (the) clean fuel programme,” it added. As the prices of diesel decreased, CNG lost its “competitive edge”, said Anumita Roy Chowdhury, executive director, research and advocacy, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).

“Petrol remained expensive and as a result, people started shifting to diesel vehicles. Not only has the programme to shift to CNG, a clean fuel, been hurt by this but this has also lead to health problems since diesel is classified as carcinogenic by WHO,” Chowdhury added.

In the late 1990s, around the same time as the CNG ruling, diesel-fuelled vehicles constituted only four per cent of the total car sales in Delhi, the EPCA recorded in a 2007 report, adding that the number had reached 24 per cent in 2006. Today, the authority estimates that diesel cars account for almost half of total sales in Delhi and NCR.

Petrol stood no chance, either

It’s not just CNG, the lower cost of diesel meant that petrol, a comparatively cleaner fuel, stood no chance in Delhi.
According to a report submitted by the Petroleum Planning & Analysis Cell (PPAC) to the petroleum ministry in 2013, the declining sales of petrol-driven cars (see page 6) was “suggestive of the uneconomic and avoidable extension of diesel subsidy to users who can afford to buy diesel at market prices”.

The fallout has been disastrous. Especially when you consider that while a diesel-fuelled car running on Bharat Stage IV emission norms emits 25 gms of PM 2.5 (particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in size) every 1000 km, the corresponding figure for a petrol-driven car is seven times lesser.

A warning from San Francisco

Not surprisingly, experts have warned that it’s high time the national capital woke up. “Delhi has lost out on its first-generation reforms. The reason is that other pollution sources — from private vehicles, commercial trucks and other sources of pollution outside of the transportation sector — were not comprehensively addressed,” said Ray Minjares, Clean Air Program Lead, The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), a San Francisco-based non-profit organisation that provides technical and scientific analysis to environmental regulators worldwide.

“I think the Delhi government has many models for air quality control to choose from. The first step to take from here is to acknowledge the problem, commit to an air quality goal, and implement an aggressive set of measures to achieve it,” he added.

According to Priya Shankar, Research Officer, LSE Cities Centre, London School of Economics, the rapid increase in the number of diesel vehicles is a “significant factor” that “went wrong” in Delhi.

“The improvement that resulted from the introduction of CNG wasn’t adequate to combat the worsening air quality resulting from more vehicles. Other factors that caused worsening air in Delhi are the continuing use of diesel in vehicles and also of diesel-generators in private electricity provision,” Shankar said.

Emissions, the final nail

Minjares said that streamlining emission norms was an important step in getting Delhi back on track. But while the petroleum ministry had stated that Bharat Stage IV fuel would be available in all north Indian cities starting from April 1, 2015, the move has been stalled due to stiff opposition from vehicle manufacturers.

J K Dadoo, who was Delhi’s environment secretary from 2007-09, said that the then state government had pushed for Euro V norms but “had to settle” for Euro IV (Bharat Stage IV) norms.

“The automobile lobby cried out that we couldn’t do this since there were already so many cars on the roads,” Dadoo said. “So, we told them that we’d ban diesel instead. The point was that all these luxury, high-end cars were coming in and using diesel. The rich man was using the poor man’s fuel.”

The Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), meanwhile, said that they would support the plan “if provision of the Bharat Stage IV fuel is done in clusters around cities”. “Otherwise there would be gaps in marketing,” said Vishnu Mathur, director-general, SIAM.

N S Tiwana, former chairperson of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and member of the Supreme Court-mandated Justice Saikia panel, which first pushed for changes in fuel emission norms, said none of its recommendations were taken seriously —- either by the government or by the industry.

“The idea of setting up such a committee (in 1991) was to tell the industry what you need in advance. Policies on emission norms can never be effectively implemented overnight. Look at cities like California where experts had suggested recommendations around the same time as us. They have gone ahead by leaps and bounds, whereas we are stuck with dirty diesel vehicles,” he said.

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