A yellowish smog hung like a death shroud over Delhi and its suburbs through much of November. The acrid air that blanketed the national capital in those days was so thick that even the sun's rays could barely cut through it for days.
Emergency measures were announced. Schools were shut and people were asked to stay indoors. And a ritualistic blame game that is as predictable as the onset of winter started. The usual culprits were crop stubble burning by farmers and the thousands of cars that clog Delhi's roads.
But there was another dirty secret that has largely escaped popular scrutiny – petroleum coke, or petcoke, a bottom-of-the-barrel by-product of crude refining that was used as fuel in many of the factories dotting the industrial belt along Delhi's border. That is until, in a landmark ruling in October 2017, the Indian Supreme Court stopped the use of petcoke in Delhi and its neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan.
In a country were executive decision-making is a slow and painful grind, the courts often step in to hurry things up. For children and the elderly living in much of north India, this decision couldn't have come sooner. Burning of petcoke is estimated to release heart and lung disease-causing sulphur content almost 17 times higher than that of coal, the burning of which is itself deemed extremely hazardous to health.
The court ruling, as part of emergency measures to battle unprecedented pollution, however, caught small and medium-sized factories completely off-guard. The transition to an alternative fuel within days of the court ruling is a daunting task, if not impossible. For small businesses that run on thin profit margins, pet coke was a cheap fuel to run their furnaces.
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"You can't build a nation at the cost of a nation. I'm fully in favour of the ban, but we should have got more time to make the shift," says DV Singh, honorary joint secretary of the Bhiwadi Manufacturers Association, an industry body that represents around 250 manufacturers in Rajasthan state.
"In Bhiwadi itself, there's a dire shortage of clean fuel. Most manufacturers have had to shift to light diesel oil (LDO), costs have escalated and most boilers need to be modified. All we are asking is, give us a little time. The smaller factories are struggling. All industries — textile, glass, rubber — are badly affected," Singh says. Business lobby group Associated Chambers of Commerce of India (ASSOCHAM) estimated that more than 2.5 million workers will be rendered jobless in Faridabad, Ghaziabad, Gurugram, Panipat, Sonipat and Noida, cities that border Delhi, because of the ban.
Scene out of an apocalypse movie
Environmental activists are, however, unwavering in their opposition to petcoke. The cost foul air has on health and productivity far outweighs the short-term cost on transitioning to a cleaner fuel, they contend.With Delhi the 11th most polluted city in the world, they had good reason. In early November, eyes started to sting and throats clamped as people in Delhi struggled to get through the early days of winter when the air remains mostly still, allowing the smog to settle. This time coincides with the annual paddy straw burning season in neighbouring states, worsening an already bad situation.
Petcoke, one of the major sources of air pollutants, is a fuel waste product that is cheaper than coal, easily available and burnt in thousands of factories across India. In fact, so high is its demand in energy-starved India that an Associated Press investigation found that American companies that are unable to dump the polluting fuel at home, are shipping it here. In 2016 alone, the US exported more than 8 million tonnes of petcoke to India, about 20 times higher the amount six years ago. This is in addition to the petcoke India produced locally.
No wonder then Indian activists want the fuel banned across the country, and not just in the northern states, with immediate effect, a demand that is being considered by the federal environment ministry.
"There's no formal decision (on a country-wide ban on petcoke) yet," Ritesh Kumar Singh, Joint Secretary at the Ministry of Environment and Forest, told HuffPost India over the phone. A high-level task force, headed by the Prime Minister's principal secretary, Nripendra Mishra, has been set up to help states plan a comprehensive response to the annual pollution problem.
A government official, on condition of anonymity, said the court ruling has been "hugely disruptive" for small industries in manufacturing hubs of north India. "People are obviously struggling with the implementation. We had representation from glass-makers from Rajasthan telling us that they can shift to natural gas immediately, but it will take 9-10 months for them to get gas supply. What are they going to do in the meantime? The furnaces also have to be modified according to new fuel use," the official said.
Manufacturers are caught between a rock and a hard place. Their choices are limited.
There are huge challenges, including last mile connectivity, in shifting to natural gas, a cleaner fuel. The Supreme Court exempted three industries, including cement makers, from the ban on the condition that they won't use petcoke as fuel but only as feedstock. Petcoke is a key raw ingredient in the making of cement and a ban on it would mean a shift to domestic or imported coal, leading to a rise in power and fuel cost per tonne per bag by Rs 8-10, according to India Ratings and Research, a ratings company.
"The industry got hardly a week to shift to a new fuel. The court should at least have set a deadline of three months from its ruling for the petcoke ban to come into place," said the official.
But the matter was in court for six to eight months and the "knee-jerk reaction" need not have happened had the government been prepared. "We should have seen this coming," the official conceded.
The ministry is, however, serious about avoiding a repeat of the deadly November smog.
The minister for environment, Dr Harsh Vardhan, told Parliament that the government has formulated a National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) as a long term, time-bound strategy to tackle air pollution.
"The overall objective is to augment and evolve effective ambient air quality monitoring network across the country besides ensuring comprehensive management plan for prevention, control and abatement of air pollution," Dr Vardhan said.
There is a reason manufacturers love petcoke.
"No clean fuel like natural gas or electricity can compete with petcoke and furnace oil because of the cost," said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director, research and advocacy, at Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).
"The fuel that we are burning in the industrial sector in this region is largely pet coke and furnace oil. Look at the irony. On one hand, we have pushed the automobile industry to move to Euro 4 (emission standards) and to do that we had to clean up our transport fuel to reduce sulphur (India aims to move to Euro 6 by 2020 and reduce Sulphur in automobile oil to 10 ppm (parts per million) from current 50ppm), on the other we are burning dirty fuel in our industries," she said.
The Supreme Court-mandated Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) found sulphur levels as high as 74,000 ppm in petcoke, a report that led to the ban on the polluter from 1 November, 2017. Automobile fuel - diesel and petrol - have about 50 ppm, furnace oil between 15,000-23,000 ppm and coal 4,000 ppm of sulphur.
"There is huge push back from the industry because they continue to want to use it. It's extremely cheap," said Roychowdhury. India's top court has also asked the federal government to frame and implement emission standards for 34 industries with regard to the sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulphur oxides (SOx).
Here's the SC judgment banning petcoke:
Activists have warned repeatedly of the hazardous nature of this dirty fuel. A ban has been in place in Delhi since 1996 when the Delhi Pollution Control Committee left it out of its list of 'acceptable fuels' under section 19 of the Air Act. But extending the ban to the three other states was important. And eventually bringing it to bear upon the entire country will be the real challenge.
Significance of court order
With the ban in place in NCR (National Capital Region that includes Union Territory of Delhi, and several districts of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan surrounding it), the order means that industries dependent on petcoke would now be forced to shift to a cleaner fuel variant. Industries elsewhere will have to follow NOx and SOx standards.
Activists say the challenge will be to move to cleaner fuel without hurting business interest. It will also test the federal government's resolve to really make environment a key issue while keeping its development goal on focus.
Both petcoke and furnace oil get incentives under India's new indirect tax reform - the Goods and Services Tax (GST). While GST on petcoke and furnace oil is 18 percent, coal is taxed at 5% charged to consumers and a GST Compensation Cess at Rs 400 added per tonne. Natural gas, a cleaner alternative, is excluded from GST. That means older tax rates apply and can add up to as much as 30%, according to a Bloomberg report.
However, as a step forward, India raised the import duty on petcoke to 10% from 2.5%, a move that will discourage imports from US refineries. With consumption of around 25 million tonnes, of which 13 million tonnes is indigenously produced, India is the world's largest consumer of petcoke.
Akhilesh Yadav, a former Chief Minister of India's most populous state Uttar Pradesh, told HuffPost India over the phone that his political party's manifesto prominently features environment as a deliverable to the people.
"I don't know about BJP and Congress. But Samajwadi Party had a Green Document. Why blame farmers for burning paddy stubble? Educate them and provide them with an alternative. There's a company in Ghazipur (in Uttar Pradesh) that collects leftover stubble and processes them. The courts have clearly said no stubble is to be burnt, then why is stubble burning still a cause of pollution," says Yadav, who has a bachelor's and a master's degrees in Civil Environmental Engineering.
"When do you need political consensus? Only when you face resistance. Farmers are willing to sell the crop waste, all you need to do is strengthen the collection system," he said. As part of his government's green initiatives, Yadav had built bicycle tracks in Bareilly, Lucknow and Noida districts in consultation with experts from Amsterdam, a city known for its cyclists. The bicycle is also his party's election symbol.
"Why will leaders want environment in their political speeches when mentions of caste and religion get them votes," Yadav said, taking a dig at the Hindu right wing Bharatiya Janata Party that is often accused of fighting elections on communal planks.
Sunil Dahiya, a senior campaigner for Greenpeace, specializing in climate and energy, said he was disappointed when he heard environment minister Vardhan tell a TV channel that air pollution maybe harmful but it may not be a killer.
"It was really sad to hear that from him. He has worked with the World Health Organisation."
"Ultimately these studies have to be India centric. To attribute any death to a cause like pollution, that may be too much. Certainly if you have a diseased lung and if the pollution is continuously damaging your alveoli (air sacks) then one day when you die, you can attribute the cause of death, to some proportion, to maybe pollution. But I don't think we can generalise and say that millions of people are dying only due to pollution," Vardhan told NDTV.
"It was really sad to hear that from him. He has worked with the World Health Organisation," Dahiya said.
"Not a single coal-based thermal power plant (one the major sources of pollution in India) complied with the Ministry of Environment's 7 December, 2015 deadline to clean up," Dahiya said. The environment ministry had issued a draft notification on December 7, 2015 calling for stricter pollution control of thermal plants.
Dahiya pointed out that the problem with petcoke is that it is not burnt in isolation. "It's burnt in periphery of residential areas where factories are located," Dahiya said and gave the example of Panipat, a densely populated township about 90 km from Delhi, with a huge demand for petcoke.
In the end of December, people with masks on are no longer common sight on the roads, which is all the more reason why we must be wary of complacency. Two of the biggest challenges are the industry lobbying and political will, said Dahiya. And unless Indian leaders find the will, India will continue to be globally shamed for failing to tackle a problem that affects millions.