A clean-up act: no compromise over air quality

The Supreme Court has signalled there can be no compromise over air quality

The Supreme Court’s direction to transport authorities to stop registering vehicles that do not meet Bharat Stage-IV emission standards from April 1 sends out the welcome message that short-term economic considerations cannot supersede public health concerns. Some automobile companies, notably those manufacturing two-wheelers and commercial vehicles, have suffered a blow as they must now deal with unsold inventories of the obsolete models. The 2017 deadline for a nationwide shift to BS-IV had been repeatedly emphasised in various forums, and reiterated by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Petroleum and Natural Gas in its review of the Auto Fuel Policy nearly two years ago. But there was some confusion about whether April 1 was the deadline for the manufacture of BS-III models or their sale. Significantly, some automobile manufacturers themselves called for a decisive shift in favour of the higher emission standard, since they had invested in upgraded technologies over time. But it would appear that two-wheeler and commercial vehicle manufacturers made a costly miscalculation when they hoped for a repeat of the experience they had seven years ago, when the shift from BS-II to BS-III norms was carried out with a relaxation of deadlines often stretching across months. The Centre must share some of the blame, because it assured industry of a business-as-usual approach on a sensitive issue such as automotive emissions, even though producers were already equipped and meeting the higher norms in the bigger cities.

The court’s order means that a little over eight lakh BS-III vehicles will have to be either upgraded or sold abroad. As a total sum, this is a small fraction of the 19 crore vehicles on Indian roads today. It is unlikely that the court’s uncompromising approach will have a significant impact on reducing air pollution. But the message it sends out on air pollution is unmistakable. Research reported three years ago estimated that 30% to 50% of total on-road emissions came from vehicles older than 10 years, or about 17% of the fleet. The requirement for manufacturers to adjust to the new reality should serve as a reminder that they, and the fuel companies, must prepare for the next big deadline: an upgrade to the BS-VI standard by April 1, 2020, leapfrogging BS-V. More immediately, the Centre has to ensure that the objective of the Supreme Court’s order is met, and the ‘one fuel, one country’ goal for BS-IV is fulfilled. This is crucial to ensure that the catalytic converters of newer vehicles are not affected by lower-grade fuels. Liquidating obsolete inventory does pose a challenge for manufacturers, but this can be met through exports, technology upgrades or reuse of dismantled parts. The imperative is to shift to a clean fuel pathway.

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