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Smooth ride for posterity

Updated: September 30, 2017 11:23 am

Today, air quality has become a serious concern at the global level against the backdrop of rising industrial and vehicular air pollution. Air pollution is a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (umbrella term for several progressive lung diseases including emphysema) and lung cancer, and increases the risks for acute respiratory infections and exacerbates asthma. With the economy booming in many of India’s cities since the turn of this century the number of road vehicles and dusty construction sites have multiplied, and outdoor air pollution has become a major health hazard and a major killer. This adds to the already large burden of ill-health caused by household air pollution from the use of solid fuels for cooking in the world’s second most populous country of some 1.3 billion people.

No surprise, against this backdrop, Union Minister of Road Transport, Highways and Shipping, Nitin Gadkari, has taken this to heart and has taken upon himself to provide clean environment to the people of this country. Hence, he announced to replace fossil-fuel vehicles with electric ones by 2030, as India’s ambitious all-electric-car target needs a dominant thrust Therefore, Nitin Gadkari spoke of ‘bulldozing’ his way to the target recently at the annual convention of the Society of Indian Automobile Manufactures (SIAM).  According to the data in global Burden of Disease (GBD) 2010, outdoor air pollution is among the top ten risks worldwide. In Asia, there are more than five risks in developing countries. India is also considered to be reaching an alarming stage that needs urgent measures at policy level. Hence, Nitin Gadkari’s remarks are very timely and thought provoking to safeguard our planet.

In India the past governments never took strident measures to curb vehicular emission. It is noteworthy that the Auto Fuel Policy recommended implementation of BS-VI norms by 2024, but a draft notification by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways  advanced the date to 1 April 2021. At present, only 50 cities in India are provided with BS-IV fuel, while the rest still use BS-III fuel. By turning to BS-VI, India will enter the club of the US, Japan and the European Union, which follow Euro Stage VI emission norms. The Supreme Court had asked the government to implement BS-VI norms earlier than the April 2021 deadline fixed by the Union government in January 2016. Following the direction, the Ministry decide to pre-pone the implementation of emission norms and specified mass emission standards (BS-VI) for various category vehicles including those with a gross vehicle weight not exceeding 3,500 kg, manufactured on or after April 1, 2020 for all models. Moving to BS-VI directly will require significant technological upgrades and investment.

It is estimated the oil PSUs will invest INR 287 billion (US$ 4.4 billion) for the transition and auto companies may have to invest INR 500 billion (US$ 7.5 billion). In this perspective, Nitin Gadkari is doing the right thing. People will keep complaining about this or that, but if we have to develop, we have to get rid of our dependence on imported oil. It is simply not sustainable. Each of the hindrances, quoted by the automobile industry, is actually grounds for hope, because each of them offers an opportunity to do much better. Check how much fuel a car needs vis-a-vis  electricity for the same. Even if all of electricity is produced by coal in a modern thermal plant, it will still be more efficient than burning petrol or diesel in each car. Of course, the major auto companies, part of the entrenched oil/financial conglomerate, have no real interest in this. But India is well poised to make this a reality.

Here it is noteworthy that the automobile industry emphasises the fact that it is a Himalayan task to install enough electric charging centres for e-vehicles. But they forget the fact that the waiting list for permission to set up new petrol pumps is very gargantuan. If those people are told to set up electric stations (maybe solar assisted), they can easily setup enough stations sooner than anticipated. I think the talk from Minister gives direction to industry and its ecosystem so that they do not make new investments in sun-set technology. Target year is given and the required initial push is being given to ensure that industry takes it more seriously.  It cannot be gainsaid that for running today’s vehicles, we are forced to import 80 per cent of fuel from countries that are difficult to deal with. Electric cars will, anyway, have exteriors, styling, interiors like seating, transmission, AC, music and related parts; only engine will be replaced with motor along with related changes.

Currently, new e-cars should be brought out at the earliest and for this work should be done intensively and seriously. Thirteen years is a long period, and it’s a leap of faith that must be taken and prepared for from now. But it needs the government support initially in form of subsidies besides ramping-up of existing fuel-dispensing infrastructure for battery charging and for sale of electric batteries. India should target adoption of e-vehicles and auto companies should be forced to make the necessary changes from now on including liquidation of stocks and modification of assembly lines.  The Minister’s idea is really good. But before switching to another fuel regime, the government has to establish a policy framework, guidelines and infrastructure to dispose of the used car batteries. We have to understand the scale, at which the vehicles are sold in India. If we apply the same scale to electric vehicles, then definitely there can be shortage of lithium, which in turn will cause the price rise not just in electric vehicles, but also in electronic gadgets, as most of them use lithium-based batteries. But I would conclude by saying that this is a very good move for all of us from the environment point of view.

By Uday India Bureau


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