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A Million Mutinies: Raising India's Environmental Awareness

Save Oil, Save Future, Chandigarh, India (Nice Logo/Flickr)

Save Oil, Save Future, Chandigarh, India (Nice Logo/Flickr)

Sunita Narain

Yes, there's very little space to move. CNG is compressed natural gas which you also have now in New York. You have some buses running on CNG, as well in New York. And it's been a big part of our campaign to move towards CNG because it's a cleaner fuel. And it's been amazing to see the amount of pressure we've had. We had a $25 million suit against us from a major automobile company because we were fighting diesel. It was withdrawn in a week with an apology. But that's the sense of Indian democracy which I'm very proud of.

But it's a major problem that we have. Diesel is a big problem because diesel is the one that emits the small particles. And I talked about PM 10 being a problem. For us the problem also is the fact that you have the distortion in price taking place, because diesel is kept cheaper for the poor and the agricultural sector and for mass transit. But on the other hand, because it is kept cheaper, you have every car maker now which is coming in for the diesel variant. So, just like you have a problem here with SUVs, we have a similar problem of diesel-makers coming in. So whether it's Toyota or whether it's a Ford or whether it is a Telco which is an Indian company or whether it is the Koreans, everyone is coming in with the Diesel variant -- essentially to make sure that they can find that niche which is mega-class looking for a cheaper ride. And that's been a big campaign that we've had -- to try and get rid of that. We've not been able to ban the diesel car, which has been our dream, but we've definitely been able to get a lot of orders in terms of getting the court to order the fact that now all buses have to move to CNG. All auto-rickshaws have to move to CNG. All taxis have to move to CNG. And, diesel prices are now going up. So a combination of all that has led to less dieselization and hopefully a cleaning up of the air. CNG is cheaper than diesel. That's also because it's not subsidized like diesel is but because it's a clean fuel, we've at least been able to make sure that the government has given some concessions on taxes on CNG. But it is cheaper. And it's definitely cleaner because it does not have particulates as you see in diesel. And that's been a big issue in cities.

It requires a different kind of automation. But now with petrol it's very easy to be able to get a CNG car. But diesel is a problem. And now, across the world now there's a lot of work now, on this. Everyone is talking about the fact that until the fuel-cell vehicles come onto the road, the next real innovation, in terms of cleaning air, will really be in gases. And that's why you're seeing now a lot of pressure, in the US, particularly, there's been a lot of pressure to move both into LPG as well as CNG -- a lot of benefits. And that, people are predicting as the battle that we will have for the next 10, 15 years. Because one of the big issues that all of us face, the problem is that when you're already tightening standards here and the tightening of diesel standards, for instance, as in California, by the year 2004, you will not be able to have diesel vehicles there, in the current technology, unless they leapfrog into a much better technological answer to diesel.And they are talking about it today. Zero-sulphur diesel, for instance,and particulate traps. Our sulphur in our diesel is about 3,000 parts per million. You have about 35 parts per million. So just look at the difference. And when we started our campaign, we had 3,000 parts per million. In three years,we now have 500 parts per million of sulphur in our diesel. What we need is about 10 parts per million or 30 parts per million.

But the big issue for us, and this is that we are constantly bringing to the attention of government as well as policy makers is the fact that we don’t need incremental change. What we need to do now is to leapfrog into new technologies and make that transition once and for all rather than making small changes in sulphur levels, for instance, from 3000 parts to 2,500 parts and then slowly bringing it down to 30 parts permillion. Most of India is wheezing and choking and dead withrespiratory diseases, so why don't we make the big transition and go to what's clean diesel today? And this is the big issue for us is to be able to say that we have major health concerns and these health costs have an economic cost as well on society. And therefore, what we need to do is to take some hard action which will leapfrog us to clean technologies.Now that's difficult because at the end of the day we remain a poor country with difficult options to take. And the mind of the politician is still not into the issues of environment. They're still looking at it in terms of livelihoods and in terms of jobs for poor people. And that's the big issue in terms of bringing about change. And one of the things we are seeing is that politicians are learning in India, when it comes to resource management, not when it comes to pollution, but definitely when it comes to resource management.