In light of the US Volkswagen scandal, Bharat Stage, as India’s emission norms are called, are touted to be too low to generate worry for Volkswagen cars in India. Mehak Malhotra argues that on the contrary, this is enough cause for worry about the air quality that we breathe…
September 2015 was a black month in the history of automobile industry, when one of the biggest automobile scandals emerged about the German car company, Volkswagen. It was discovered by West Virginia University’s Centre for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions (CAFEE), that Volkswagen had ‘programmed’ its Type EA 189 TDI engines (1.6-litre and 2.0-litre engines) to meet US emissions tests under controlled laboratory conditions, while on the road the same engines produced up to 35 times more nitrogen-oxide(NOx) emission than permissible. They were basically doing this via a ‘cheat’ software installed in each car which activated low emissions only when the car was being tested. Ironically CAFEE was testing the cars to promote clean diesel engines, as had been advertised by Volkswagen as part of their bid to promote diesel as an efficient and superior fuel to petrol.
The Reaction in India
This revelation left the entire world astounded and created a flurry across automobile producers and governments. EU asked its governments to check for the compliance levels of Volkswagen cars to Europe’s emission standard. Similarly the Indian government also ordered Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI) to submit a report by the end of November 2015 on whether Volkswagen Cars meet Indian emission norms.
This step taken by the Indian Government is crucial, especially in view of the fact that two years ago, the US car maker General Motors was accused of fudging emission data, leading to the largest recall of that time of 114,000 Chevrolet Taveras that were made at its Gujarat plant.
But it is inappropriate to compare the United States and India in terms of procedure of emission regulation, since US laws allow car makers to self-certify that they are meeting standards. The emission regulations are administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which then conducts random checks on cars. India on the other hand relies on a third-party approval process similar to that followed in Europe.
The US also has the most stringent emission norms in the world. India on the other hand follows Bharat Stage IV standards which are equivalent to Euro IV emission standards[i]. Interestingly, Europe is currently following Euro VI standards while India is still in the process of implementing Bharat Stage IV (BS IV) in 33 major polluting cities while the rest of the country follows BS III. This makes India more than 5 years behind Europe in terms of emission norms. This explains why Volkswagen isn’t too worried about violating India’s emission norms.
Why Lax Standards?
This raises the question-Why is India following European emission norms with a lag? This question becomes all the more pertinent considering the latest desire of Nitin Gadkari, the Road and Transport Minister, who has appealed to automobile producers to leapfrog the emission norms by skipping BS V and directly implementing BS VI. This is in a bid to address India’s spiraling vehicular pollution.
The European Emission Standards were introduced in 1993 (Euro 1) and were upgraded every 3-4 years to implement Euro VI by 2014. On the other hand, the Bharat Stage standards were first introduced in 2000 and the government has been upgrading it every 5 years but in different stages for different cities as mentioned earlier. To add to the confusion, India also has a different set of emission norms for its two-wheelers and three-wheelers. According to a study conducted by the Desert Research Institute and the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, the only way to stabilise fine particulates (PM2.5) at the 2011 levels despite the five-fold rise in vehicular density, is nationwide implementation of BS V standards by 2015. This deadline was, as we can see, ambitious considering the government is still struggling to enforce BS IV standards uniformly in all the cities.
What are the Bottlenecks?
There are several problems that have created bottlenecks in the smooth enforcement and transition of emission norms in the country. Firstly, dual emission norms for different parts of the country creates several issues. Manufacturers find it difficult to make two types of vehicles, one compliant to BS IV while the other to BS III. Moreover since BS IV vehicles are sold at a higher price, this has resulted in a diversion of buyers towards BS III areas for registering their vehicles. Monitoring becomes especially problematic in the case of buses and trucks, which are the highest polluters. Since they travel across several regions, lack of availability of BS IV fuel everywhere and absence of monitoring means they are able to get away by following BS III standards.
Secondly, BS IV engines require a higher grade of fuel as compared to BS III engines. BS-IV petrol and diesel contain far less sulphur than BS-III fuel. This is an important transition because sulphur in fuel makes it dirtier and lowers the efficiency of catalytic converters, which control emissions. Additionally, using lower grade fuel in a high grade engine lowers the efficacy of the engine. A non-uniform emission policy sends confusing signals to refineries who are unable to invest in a higher grade of fuel only for select cities. Hence it is vital to have the refineries on the same page as the automobile manufacturers otherwise moving to a more stringent emission standard will be a total failure.
Thirdly, the proposed skipping of BS V norms directly to BS VI has been dismissed as unfeasible by automobile manufacturers since the engine requirements and design are complex and need to be tested for suitability on Indian roads. BS V requires the adaptation of a diesel particulate filter while BS VI needs a selective catalytic reduction technology, optimized to Indian road conditions. Since the average Indian running speeds are much lower than European speeds the viability of adopting these technologies will need to be tested on Indian roads. These technologies also can be validated only after 6-7 lakh km and this stresses the importance of implementing the norms in series rather than transiting immediately.
Finally, India being a developing nation has a very active network and density of transportation activity. Imposing higher emission compliance imposes an additional cost on operators and affect prices of goods and services. This can burden the economy of a developing country.
With the aim to fix the automotive emission standards by 2025, it is imperative that the government strictly adheres to the timeline set for implementation of BS V and BS VI. Moreover, on a policy level, idealistic though it may seem, we need to stop aping other countries’ standards and make our own. Europe’s air pollution problem is minor compared to India and they do not need to be as aggressive in enforcing it. But again, like all other policy, this too needs to be balanced with the needs of a developing country. This is the usual argument that advocates choosing development needs over those of the environment, not realizing that you can’t expect an unhealthy workforce to drive the economy. Finally, the highly likely scenario that Volkswagen isn’t in violation of our norms itself indicates our long journey to the top.
Mehak Malhotra is pursuing a Masters in Applied Economics at Centre for Development Studies(JNU)
[i] India follows Europe’s emission norms hence Bharat Stage IV (BS IV) is equivalent to Euro IV. But since Europe’s emission norms were implemented in 1993 while Bharat Stage was implemented in 2000 India is still in the process of implementing BS IV while European countries have already moved on to Euro VI. Higher stage means lesser emissions.