Both the BJP-ruled central government and the AAP-run Delhi government are equally guilty of stalling the issue and doing nothing.
If governance is about action and preventing chaos and discrimination, the Centre appears to have presented a bad example of it in dealing with the appeals of lakhs of passenger cars, taxis and commercial transport operators. These groups have demanded that the actual pollution emissions from their vehicles remain the norm for determining its life and not the arbitrary fixation of a shelf life issued by the National Green Tribunal (NGT).
When the tribunal had ordered a ban on all over ten-year-old diesel vehicles on Delhi roads in April 2015, road transport minister Nitin Gadkari had assured people that the Centre would approach the Supreme Court against the order.
He had stated that the government needed more time – between three and six months – to put in place a policy for curbing air pollution.
Over a year later, the situation on the ground remains unchanged. There hasn’t been any policy to provide relief to vehicle owners nor have the directions of the NGT been implemented.
As the case lingered on for over a year and neither the Centre nor Delhi government drew up a policy to phase out the old vehicles or find ways and means to ensure that they did not pollute, the NGT this month was once again ordered the Delhi government to deregister all such over ten-year-old diesel vehicles, beginning with ones that are now over 15 years old.
“All diesel vehicles which are more than 15 years old and are BS-I, BS-II shall be scrapped and no NOC [no objection certificate] for transfer of such vehicles will be issued. We make it clear that deregistration of diesel vehicles shall be complied with effectively without any default,” the order said.
The order, which covered nearly 2.82 lakh over ten-year-old diesel vehicles and meant an end to the life of nearly 1.8 lakh of these that were over 15 years old, had an immediate fallout.
Counsels on behalf of the government were quick to point out that as many of these were commercial vehicles, their removal would affect the food supply chain and impact essential services.
The bench was quick to retort, raising a valid point, “Has the Centre or the Delhi government made a single effort to resolve the diesel ban issue with transport associations?”
Both the BJP-ruled central government and the Aam Aadmi Party-run Delhi government were equally guilty of stalling the issue and doing nothing. They had the time to exchange barbs over numerous issues during the course of the year, but not this one.
In the Supreme Court, earlier this month, the Delhi government submitted that it had impounded only about 3,000 diesel vehicles but had released them after the payment of fines or court orders.
While cutting short the lives of diesel vehicles, the NGT had also barred the sale of over 15-year-old ones anywhere in the country by restricting issuance of no objection certificates to them. It later modified its order allowing their sale in those parts of different states where the air pollution was low and asked all the states to zone such areas.
The NGT had also directed that the owners of old diesel vehicles be fined Rs 2,000 or more if they are found running and asked the Centre its plans for keeping and disposing off the impounded and scrapped vehicles.
While the intent behind the NGT order may be noble, it emerged that it had several pitfalls as well.
Just the way the previous orders had impacted vintage cars and municipal trucks, the latest one has the potential to force nearly 50% of all ambulances off the roads.
The Delhi Transport Department noted that 991 of its 1,600 registered ambulances were diesel run and over ten years old, while 813 of these were over 15 years old.
If pollution alone were the criterion for the order, then would it make sense to grant them an exemption, like municipal vehicles?
Else, won’t their replacement put a huge burden on the exchequer? What does the cost-benefit analysis say about the pollution caused by these ambulances versus their role in people’s lives?
The order also has the potential to take 81,169 of the nearly 90,000 goods vehicles immediately off the roads.
Neighbouring Uttar Pradesh and Haryana have also felt the reverberations of the order as a number of their cities are also covered in the National Capital Region.
Uttar Pradesh has decided to consult the Supreme Court appointed Environment Pollution Control Committee (EPCA) to approach and inform the apex court on how the order would have an adverse impact on the lives and livelihood of lakhs of people engaged in the transportation sector.
Uttar Pradesh transport commissioner K. Ravinder Naik also went on the record to state that “impounding so many heavy vehicles across such a large area will not only be difficult to implement, scrapping the vehicles will also be a complicated process. The order also says we can’t issue NOCs for the sale of vehicles outside the state.”
For its part, Haryana had announced that it would implement the order but there too the pressure of transporters is now weighing on the government.
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has advised protesters in Delhi to approach the Supreme Court with their grievances.
Delhi transport minister Satyendar Jain said that, “the transporters suggested that we gradually phase out old vehicles and prepare a policy to implement the NGT’s order. They also sought compensation or some relief in lieu of their vehicles being impounded. We have asked them to approach the Supreme Court and we might directly approach the NGT with these points.”
The Delhi government later announced a two-year time frame for the phasing out of the old diesel vehicles beginning with those that were over 15 years old.
While the focus for now appears to be on commercial and government vehicles, what has outright been ignored is that over 1.61 private vehicles also face imminent impounding and scrapping. “There are a number of vehicles which belong to old people or those nearing retirement and who are not financially capable of buying a new vehicle. What plan do the courts or the government have for them? You cannot leave the elderly to the mercy of public transport,” said Ajay Kaushik, a retired defence official living in Noida.
Among the vehicles that face scrapping are 5,376 commercial tractors, of which 3,886 will need to be removed immediately.
Amidst all these concerns about ambulances, tractors, private vehicles and livelihood of lakhs involved in the transportation business, the Centre has once again decided to challenge the NGT order on the grounds that motor vehicle rules and regulations are not violated when vehicles comply with the fitness and pollution norms.
The Centre wants fitness tests to be the only criterion for determining whether a vehicle has a right to remain on the road or not. Its officials insist most developed countries follow this very form.
The argument from the Centre would also be that there are some who use their vehicles sparingly and thus age should not be made a criterion for the life of a vehicle.
To appeal to the apex court and the NGT, the Centre would also be depending on its submission that it intends to improve the fuel quality and improve the standards of fitness tests through the use of information technology solutions.
This time the Centre needs to act with alacrity, because much is at stake for many.