Increase in diesel vehicles worries experts

Nikhil M Ghanekar

Mumbai, Feb. 5 -- Though the Centre's recent decision to deregulate diesel prices and the steep hike in the price of the fuel for bulk consumers has invited mixed responses, it could steer consumers away from diesel vehicles, lowering air pollution levels in the long-run.

Experts believe that the consistent hike in diesel prices will discourage consumers from buying diesel-run vehicles, which have mushroomed owing to the frequent hikes in petrol prices. And even though privately-owned diesel cars are fewer in number than petrol-run ones, they contribute significantly to air pollution because the fuel is mostly used by heavy vehicles.

According to March 2010 figures, there were 2,29,046 lakh diesel vehicles as opposed to 13,35,722 petrol vehicles in Mumbai.

Environmental experts said the government should look at the health hazards caused by the proliferation of diesel cars. "Last year, the International Agency for Cancer Research made it amply clear that diesel exhaust is carcinogenic, and exposure to its pollutants can cause lung cancer. If alternate modes of transport are not subsidised, then the common man's health will be hit the most," said Rakesh Kumar, chief scientist and head, National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI).

While experts largely agreed with the government move, they said it should provide subsidy on the fuel specifically for public transport.

"In essence, deregulating diesel prices is not a wrong thing, but you can't arrive at a situation where Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) has to go to retail outlets for refuelling. A targeted subsidy mechanism has to be developed for buses," said Madhav Pai, director, Embarq, a global urban transport solutions provider.

Advocating a middle ground, Ashok Datar, chairman of Mumbai Environmental Social Network (MESN), a non-government organisation working on decongesting traffic in Mumbai, said: "Rather than favouring either private vehicle owners or public transport, the prices of fuel should be realistic and reflect the demand and supply situation in the market."

Datar also said that the hike may force people to rely on public transport. "The per-capita fuel consumption of a private car may be lesser than that of buses, but a bus transports three-to-four times more people. In the long run, the diesel hike might reduce pollution by forcing people to choose public transport," added Datar.

On the flip side, deregulation of diesel prices will make public transport expensive. Recently, the BEST undertaking, which has diesel-run buses, announced it would increase the base fare by Rs. 1 from April. Starting this week, the BEST has also planned to refuel buses at retail outlets. "The deregulation of prices has put an increased burden of Rs. 43 crore on BEST. Refuelling at retail outlets will save us Rs. 11.5 per litre. If the diesel prices go through the roof, we will have no option but to pass on the burden of extra cost to commuters," said Ashok Patil, chairman, BEST undertaking.

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.