NEW DELHI -- In April, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) said that diesel vehicles over 10 years old will not be allowed to run in Delhi. That ruling was in response to rising vehicular pollution in the city, which has earned it the dubious distinction of being the most polluted in the world.
The ruling is now starting to have effect, as buyers are turning away from diesel to petrol, which is less harmful. If it continues this way, the NGT ruling might result in a less polluted Delhi.
Sales of diesel cars, are down to 33 percent of total car sales, after touching a high of 47 percent last year. Maruti Suzuki, India's largest carmaker, has recorded equal sales of diesel and petrol variants. That's a substantial fall from last year, when diesel cars made up 70 percent of its total sales.
The NGT ban makes is less lucrative to buy a diesel car because its value will depreciate faster now than before. But it is not the only reason why diesel cars are becoming less popular.
The cost of diesel has gone up since the Narendra Modi government decided to deregulate its price. In January 2013, a litre of diesel was cheaper than petrol by Rs 19.91. In April, this year, the difference was down to Rs 11.
In June, the difference widened to Rs 16.03, still at a level where petrol car sales would continue rising over diesel. Since diesel cars are more expensive, customers need large incentives to not buy a petrol variant, which also provides a better driving experience. The ban and the price differential taken together present more incentives to not buy diesel cars.
When the price differential was smaller, like in the year 2001, diesel cars made up just four percent of Indian car sales. Delhi air was then relatively healthier as buses had started running on CNG, bringing down the level of diesel smoke in the air. But over the last decade, the UPA government de-regularized the price of petrol, but kept a lid on diesel. That proved disastrous for the environment.
Fall in diesel cars is crucial because they represent 13.15 percent of the fuel's total use. That's higher than buses at 9.55 percent, railways diesel engines at 3.24 percent and mobile towers at 1.54 percent, according to Vivek Chattopadhyay, Senior Campaign Program Manager, Centre for Science and Environment.
Trucks plying in the night, spewing tons of diesel smoke, are the worst offenders (28 percent of total diesel emissions), which won't shift to petrol. Most of them are registered in cities that do not have stringent emission norms. "We need to shift to a fixed emission standard, so that polluting diesel vehicles are fitted with particulate filters to bring them within norms," Chattopadhyay said in a phone interview with HuffPost. He also said that the pricing of diesel is still distorted because of a tax structure that favours diesel truck owners and agriculture. Farmers using diesel for cheap are a big vote bank and politicians have been wary of letting the price rise to the real market level.
The differential between diesel prices needs to widen further in favour of petrol to reduce the sale of diesel SUVs, says Chattopadhyay. "For buyers of SUVs, the existing differential is not enough to forgo a diesel variant. And sales of SUVs are rising so gains made through fewer cars sales will be undone over time if diesel prices are not freed from distorted taxation," he said.
The ban and fewer car sales are helping, but other steps should be taken quickly to complement the first two. "In the next five years, the target should be radically reduce diesel in Delhi air," Chattopadhyay said.