12 JANUARY 2016
Welcome measure to clean the air
The Centre’s decision to adopt Bharat Stage VI automotive fuels nationwide by April 1, 2020 is a key measure that can, if implemented properly, vastly improve air quality. Rolling out the BS VI standard nationally, skipping BS V, has significant cost implications for fuel producers and the automobile industry, but its positive impact on public health would more than compensate for the investment. Major pollutants such as fine particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide emitted by millions of vehicles on India’s roads are severely affecting the health of people, particularly children whose lungs are immature and hence more vulnerable. Thousands of premature deaths and rising rates of asthma episodes highlight the urgent need to make a radical and complete shift to modern fuels and vehicle technologies. Past national policy of implementation of the BS IV fuel standard failed primarily because this was not done all over the country and the technical standard also permitted a higher level of sulphur in the fuel. Higher sulphur results in high volumes of fine respirable particulates measuring 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5) being generated in emissions. Since even this obsolete standard was not followed uniformly, many vehicles, especially commercial passenger and freight carriers, have been using lower standard fuel supplied outside big cities. This has rendered their catalytic converters incapable of absorbing pollutants.
Improved air quality, especially in big urban centres, depends on several factors in an era of fast motorisation. A bloated population of vehicles using fossil fuels has affected travel speeds, worsening pollution levels. Poor civic governance has left roads unpaved and public spaces filled with debris and construction dust, constantly re-circulating particulate matter in the air. Moreover, the monitoring of diesel passenger and commercial vehicles – the biggest contributors to total emissions – for compliance with emissions regulations remains poor. Such a record does not inspire confidence that retrofitting of old vehicles to use higher quality fuels such as BS VI can be achieved smoothly. Equally, the distortions in urban development policy that facilitate the use of personal motorised vehicles rather than expanding good public transport, walking and cycling, are glaring. Many of these issues were underscored by the Saumitra Chaudhuri Committee on Auto Fuel Vision and Policy 2025 in its report submitted in 2014. The panel also recommended appropriate levies to fund the transition to cleaner, low sulphur fuels. A study by the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi on fuel policy and air quality in the same year concluded that the best results would be achieved by raising the fuel standard and introducing policy initiatives that would influence passenger behaviour and cut personal travel kilometres by 25 per cent. The government has done well to advance the deadline for cleaner fuels by three years. It must show the same diligence in making other policy changes in partnership with State governments to clean up the air.
India’s strategy for the near west
With a series of high-profile visitors and visits planned, New Delhi is indicating its focus on West Asia in the coming year, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi expected to travel to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Palestine and possibly Iran. Leaders from those countries and more are expected to come to Delhi as well, beginning with the Syrian Foreign Minister who is in Delhi now. The renewed interest from India is welcome, and indicates the importance this region holds for it. In addition, it is important that the government begins to explore options beyond bilateral relations with countries of this region, as India bids for a place as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. This is not a region India can afford to take its eyes off. The explosive discord between Iran and Saudi Arabia despite Iran’s landmark agreement with the P5+1 countries does not augur well for the future of the region as a whole, given that each country has specific areas of influence in it. The devastation of Yemen caused by Saudi Arabian strikes and fighting on the ground hint where that conflict could lead. The spread of Islamic State may have been stopped due to bombing raids by the U.S. coalition in Iraq and the Russian support to Syrian troops in Syria, but this is by no means a solution. The Israel-Palestine conflict has the potential to spark more tensions in this region at any given time, and the burgeoning numbers of refugees fleeing the violence from Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq and neighbouring areas pose another potential threat to stability in the region and in countries where these hapless communities are forced to take shelter.
Given the powder keg that the region now stands on, can India have a hands-off approach, and focus only on its bilateral interests in the region? To begin with, the WANA (West Asia, North Africa) region is home to more than seven million Indians who account for more than half of all remittances to India, adding up to $70 billion. India’s energy dependence on the region is another reason for deeper engagement. The turmoil of the past few years in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen has unleashed untold sufferings on Indians working there. India cannot afford to ignore this peril, or simply issue advisories for citizens not to go there. It will have to take a deeper interest in resolving the regional conflicts. Sending troops to these areas is not an option. Given the goodwill it enjoys, and India’s reputation of neutrality, it would be desirable for Prime Minister Modi to use his outreach in West Asia as an interlocutor for dialogue instead. When signing the landmark joint strategic vision document with the U.S. to monitor the South China Sea region, officials had pointed to India’s mandate for a role in upholding international rule of law. Much the same logic would apply for India’s role in West Asia, one that is commensurate with its own ambitions on the world stage.