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India’s vehicular pollution tests are a sham

The Supreme Court directive on the Pollution Under Control programme can have far-reaching benefits in controlling air pollution. The current programme is as good as not having one at all

opinion Updated: Aug 11, 2017 15:05 IST
At the moment, less than 2% of the 23% vehicles that are tested fail. Thus, the PUC is only stoking perverse business interest to catch only 1-2% vehicles. It is as good as not doing the programme
At the moment, less than 2% of the 23% vehicles that are tested fail. Thus, the PUC is only stoking perverse business interest to catch only 1-2% vehicles. It is as good as not doing the programme (Ajay Aggarwal/HT)

The far-reaching directive from the Supreme Court bench of Justices Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta to mandate linking of Pollution Under Control (PUC) certificate with annual vehicle insurance to improve compliance with the programme nation-wide is an important step forward. The investigation by the Environment Protection (Prevent and Control) Authority (EPCA) has shown very poor level of compliance with the PUC programme — only 23% of vehicles turn up for PUC tests in Delhi. This, with other directives, has set in motion a much needed reform agenda.

The PUC is a much-abused programme that wields little confidence. Yet on-road emissions inspection is important to ensure that vehicles do not deteriorate to emit much more than they are designed to emit. Global estimation shows that approximately 20% worst emitters on-road contribute nearly half of the pollution from all vehicles. Identifying these polluters with a stringent inspection programme and fixing the problem can give substantial air quality benefits.

It is this stringency that is missing in the current programme that the apex court is addressing. To improve the effectiveness of the programme the bench has directed all PUC centres to be linked online and a data centre to prevent manual tampering. State governments will have to audit all PUC centres and set up a strong oversight system to ensure credible tests. However, while accepting the proposal from the ministry of road transport and highways to set up a PUC centre in each fuel station the court has put a rider that the ministry must empanel each station and list them on its website. It has also suggested that these stations be inspected and audited on a regular basis to ensure compliance. In Delhi alone there are 900 PUC stations with only eight inspectors.

The EPCA investigation has exposed widespread malpractice in the National Capital Region. The system is plagued with corruption, improper testing and non-functioning equipment; fake certificates, lack of qualified PUC operators, and poor enforcement of calibration requirements for testing equipment. The new directives can help to improve compliance and disciplined management.

Some critical contentious issues remain to be heard by the court bench in September that include tightening of very lax PUC norm for pre-BS IV vehicles; integration of on-board diagnostic system and real-world driving emissions monitoring for BS VI vehicles. The PUC standards for pre-BS IV vehicles are so lax that they rarely fail a vehicle. Nearly all vehicles pass with a very high margin of difference with the norm. Less than 2% of the 23% vehicles that are tested fail. Thus, the PUC is only stoking perverse business interest to catch only 1-2% vehicles. It is as good as not doing the programme.

Moreover, the PUC programme will no longer be relevant for BS VI compliant vehicles to come in 2020. The BS VI notification has provided for monitoring of real-world driving emissions from vehicles on the road. The automobile industry is already resisting the idea as they prefer tests in laboratory. But this is necessary to stop fraud and prevent the kind of ‘dieselgate’ that has plagued Europe.

Anumita Roychowdhury is executive director, research and advocacy, Centre for Science and Environment

The views expressed are personal