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The history of how Delhi’s air pollution got so toxic

Reuters/Cathal McNaughton
This is what a lost opportunity looks like.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

It was April 1999 and I was at my first press conference. It had been organised to tell the world that we had received a legal notice from Tata Motors for a whopping Rs100 crore. This was over an article that my late colleague Anil Agarwal and I had written, talking about toxins emitted by diesel vehicles that were dangerous to our health.


Our conclusion was: Cars should not use diesel.

My message was: Diesel vehicles emit fine particles. They were known then as PM 10 and are now known as PM 2.5—simply because measuring devices have improved over the years. It has been shown conclusively that because of their small size, these particles can penetrate deep into our lungs and enter our bloodstream, leading to cardiac and respiratory problems. The World Health Organisation (WHO) had classified these particles as “likely carcinogen” (since then, it has upgraded the threat to “carcinogen”). Our conclusion was: Cars should not use diesel. Buses should shift to compressed natural gas (CNG), which emits much lower levels of PM 10 and PM 2.5. The government should rapidly and urgently clean up the quality of fuel and improve vehicle technologies.


My colleagues at the CSE (Centre for Science and Environment) had spent over a year trying to understand the cause of pollution in the city…there had been an explosion in the number of vehicles on the road—a phenomenon driven by the easy availability of the affordable Maruti cars.

This, combined with the fact that there was absolutely no standard for the quality of fuel or limits on vehicle emissions, meant that the air of the national capital was toxic.


Slow murder

Pollution did not kill instantly but instead led to the suppression of the body’s immune system, destroyed lung function or added to the cancer or cardiovascular disease burden—it was slow, but murder nevertheless. We indicted the government and industry. We put three faces on the cover of our fortnightly, Down to Earth, Nov. 15, 1996. They were of Jai Narain Prasad Nishad, then minister of environment and forests; TR Baalu, then minister of petroleum (there was no natural gas ministry); and Rahul Bajaj, the owner of Bajaj Motors, and at that time, India’s sole auto king. Why? Because our research had indicted the three. Proposals for vehicular standards were being shunted from one agency to another. This was a time when India had no Bharat Stage (BS) vehicle emission standards.


Rahul Bajaj was on the cover of our magazine because of the extremely polluting two-stroke technology that two- and three-wheelers used. Bajaj had a monopoly on vehicles at that time—this is before the advent of the four-stroke technology. The four-stroke technology saw the rise of Hero Honda and personal car mobility, which in turn saw the rise of Maruti Suzuki and all the other companies. Our agenda was not personal. It was to bring about policies for fuel technology standards and to use this to drive out polluting vehicles. This is what we now call first-generation reform.


In July 1998, the supreme court’s top bench, then headed by chief justice AS Anand…set a deadline for conversion of all three-wheelers and diesel buses to CNG. Delhi was now on schedule for a clean-up. But even as the supreme court proposed, the government deposed. Powerful vested interests did not allow anything to move. Why? Because diesel had big friends.


The car industry was about to bloom.

The year was 1998. The car industry was about to bloom—old players like Hindustan Motors with its Ambassador car were being edged out by zippier models from Maruti Suzuki and Hyundai. Waiting in the wings and about to pounce on the market was Tata Motors. Till then present only in the commercial truck and bus segment, the company had a grand plan. Tata Motors had worked out a scheme by which it could break into the Japanese- and Korean-dominated Indian car industry, with a product that was not natty but was cheap to run. How? It would use diesel—reserved for public transport and therefore kept cheaper than petrol—to fuel its car. It was just about to launch the Sumo—the first taxi car of India on diesel. This was unacceptable for pollution control. EPCA [Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority], with Anil Agarwal as a member, had petitioned the supreme court asking for diesel to be banned for use in buses. We wanted buses to move to the cleaner CNG. We certainly did not want cars to use the dirty, toxic diesel! In 1999, the CSE published a report, provocatively titled “Engines of the Devil: Why Dieselisation of Private Automobile Fleet Should Be Banned.”

Tata Motors was not amused. In April that year, Tata Motors sued us for defamation—a Rs100-crore case was slapped on us—all for writing an article in the Business Standard about the toxicity of diesel. We took the matter to the public. This, as I explained earlier, was a defining moment for us, for me. It made us grow up. Fast. Tata withdrew the legal notice, but the fight moved underground.


The supreme court was listening. This was when the shit truly hit the fan. The supreme court appointed Harish Salve (who continues to play this role with great commitment), to take up the matter as amicus curiae, asking for the suspension of registration of diesel vehicles until further orders. The learned judges of the country’s apex court concurred, saying, the “very right to life of the citizens is at stake.”


We won and also lost.

The automobile industry, led by Telco, put their full might behind their effort to defeat this move. In court, Telco’s lawyers FS Nariman and Arun Jaitley (yes, the same), P Chidambaram for Fiat (also the same) and Kapil Sibal for Maruti (also the same) argued that particulate matter was not dangerous.


The supreme court decides

We won and also lost. The supreme court, faced with this barrage of opposition from the industry—the government concluded that it was not its war at all—decided that instead of banning diesel in private cars, it would push for drastic improvement in fuel and emission standards. At that time India had virtually no emissions standards, and fuel had over 10,000 ppm of sulphur. In April 1999, the supreme court passed its sentence…In one stroke, the supreme court introduced standards for emission-control technology and fuel and gave the automobile industry six months to make the transition.


The rest is history. The automobile industry met the deadline. The oil industry provided cleaner fuel. Delhi’s air cleared. But we had lost the critical fight—sales of private diesel cars zoomed up. Over time, the benefits of clean air were squandered away.

Excerpted from Sunita Narain’s book Conflicts of Interest with permission from Penguin India. We welcome your comments at

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