The right to clean air
THE SUPREME Court's ruling on April 5 in the continuing compressed natural gas (CNG) versus diesel saga has raised issues that need to be understood before they are debated. This article will attempt to pay particular attention to parts of the judgment that have not been widely reported in the national press.
The first is with regard to the availability of CNG. The Court has pointed out that far from it being in short supply, no CNG was currently being imported and indigenous supply was actually increasing, particularly from the South Bassein field. It also said that when most (nearly 70 per cent) of the crude oil currently being processed by Indian refineries is imported, there was no rational reason why natural gas could also not be imported.
The present and potential need for gas to fuel transportation is a mere 4.8 per cent of the HBJ pipeline's current capacity, a capacity that is also being increased. The judges also emphasised that while the Government was crying itself hoarse about the shortage of gas, it actually increased the supply to, amongst others, Reliance Industries, Essar, GSFC, GIPCL (a power generator which was not allocated any gas, but was supplied all the same "as a matter of favour'') and IPCL. In the national capital region (NCR) itself, the surplus available from the quantity allocated to the Pragati power station pending its commissioning, was diverted to private industry rather than to fuel transport.
In all these cases, the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas was deliberately flouting its mandate to give priority to public health as specified in Articles 39(E), 47 and 48 A of our constitution. On the other hand, it seemed more concerned with shoring up the profits of private companies even though CNG for transport was priced at Rs. 13.11 a kg, a level nearly four times as much as the Rs. 3.55 a kg which industry paid!
The Court observed that the Union Government also seemed unwilling to accept the undoubted carcinogenic potential of automobile exhaust emissions particularly that of the particulates characteristic of diesel engines, in spite of numerous Indian and foreign studies to the contrary. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in the September 2001 issue of its journal `Parivesh' described the cancer causing properties of diesel exhaust particularly that of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and nitro-PAH particulates. The mutagenecity of these compounds further increases when they undergo atmospheric transformation after they leave the engine. Amongst serious diseases in India that can be linked to atmospheric pollution are cases of acute respiratory infection (accounting for 13 per cent of deaths) and perinatal disease (accounting for 6 per cent of deaths). Both these fractions are the largest in the world. Others include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, asthma, tuberculosis, cardio vascular disease and blindness.
The Swedish consultancy, Ecotrafic, showed in 1999 that the cancer potency of diesel cars in India was twice that of petrol ones, but if only the most harmful of the emissions, that of particulates, was concerned, a diesel car was 84 times (no less) as harmful as a CNG one. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in a recent issue described the result of a massive study of five lakh people spread over 16 years in different U.S. cities which showed an 8 per cent increase in lung cancer levels for each 10 microgramme per cubic metre (mcg / cu.m) increase in fine particle pollution levels. American standards for fine particulate pollution are 15 mcg /cu. m while Delhi's average annual levels are typically more than 150 to 200. That is, more than ten times as much!
In this connection, certified figures from the Automobile Research Association of India (ARAI) showed that the emissions of an Ashok Leyland CNG bus were much less than the Euro 4 levels, mandated from 2005 in the European Union, with respect to both nitrogen oxides and particulates and a tiny fraction of the Euro 2 levels that the Union Government seem to think were equivalent! The emissions from Telco CNG buses were roughly similar to those from their Ashok Leyland cousins.
It is interesting to note in this connection that the previous Transport Minister of Delhi (Parvez Hashmi) finalised an order for 500 CNG buses for the DTC last November, but this was reversed by his successor, Ajay Maken, emboldened perhaps by the stand of the Union Government and the misleading Mashelkar report. A result of this cussedness was that Telco and Ashok Leyland had more than 2,000 CNG chassis unsold in March and stopped further production. These 2,000 and more buses complete with brand new bodies would easily have been available today but for such foolishness.
All this does not mean that diesel vehicles are the only culprits as far atmospheric pollution is concerned and that phasing them out will mean that we will all live forever. It is also true that the large numbers of primitive two-stroke driven, two and three wheelers on our roads are also major sources especially of unburnt hydrocarbons. Thankfully, however, most three wheelers in Delhi now run on CNG and the increasing numbers of "efficient'' four-stroke two wheelers will soon dilute the effects of their cancerous brethren.
Respirable particulate pollution levels at the "bad'' ITO intersection in Delhi last Monday, April 8, the first working day after the Supreme Court's ruling came into effect, were 189 micogrammes per cubic metre, the lowest level in four years for the months of March and April according to the CPCB. This in spite of the much larger numbers of privately owned two and four wheelers on the road that day. One hopes that this is not an atmospheric freak and confirmation of the correctness of the Supreme Court's actions.
(To be concluded)
C. Manmohan Reddy
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