The US major Ford is the fifth auto company—after MAN Trucks, General Motors, Harley Davidson, and UM Motorcycles—under the Narendra Modi government to quit India. James Bond wisdom is: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.” But if it happens five times, it could be because of some inherent problems—the authorities’ obsession with electric vehicles, among other things, has cost the auto sector dear.
Conventional vehicles are blamed for air pollution, but recent findings and other data suggest otherwise. According to a July 6 recent news report, “After dust (52.5%), power plants are the biggest contributor to Delhi’s PM 2.5 concentration during summers, a new study led by the department of civil engineering at IIT Kanpur has found. Among organic aerosols found in the city’s air during the summers, solid fuel combustion has emerged as the biggest contributor (16.2%), followed by traffic (12.3%) and cooking (7.3%), it reveals”.
Had emissions from conventional vehicles been the biggest cause of air pollution, the countries with the highest numbers of cars per thousand of population would have been the most polluted. But in India there are just 30 cars per thousand of population, whereas the number is 837 for the US, 747 for Australia, 695 for Italy, followed by other rich nations.
Yet, air pollution is very low in rich nations. World Air Quality Report, 2020, prepared by the Swiss organization IQAir, showed an almost complete correlation between the prosperity and economic development of a country on the one hand and clean air. Charlotte Amalie in the US was found to be least polluted. Other least polluted cities are Stockholm (Sweden), Helsinki (Finland), Wellington City (New Zealand), Tallinn (Estonia), Oslo (Norway), and so on.
And out of 30 most polluted cities, 22 are in India, with Delhi on the top. Among the most polluted are Dhaka (Bangladesh), Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia), Kabul (Afghanistan), Doha (Qatar), and so on. Qatar is not poor but then Doha is an outlier; most polluted cities are in underdeveloped countries.
This implies that by carrying out a jihad against conventional vehicles, the government is barking up the wrong tree. Not that these vehicles don’t cause any pollution but there has been constant improvement. The BS VI-compliant vehicles bring down nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions by about 25 per cent for petrol engines and 68 per cent for diesel engines. Exhaust particulate matter emission decreases by 80 per cent in diesel engines.
Besides, electric vehicles have their own problems. Environmentalists are already worried about the recycling of EV batteries. In the Indian context, there is another issue: more than half of our electricity generation comes from coal, the most polluting source of energy. Therefore, an EV car would not pollute by way of emissions, but it may end up polluting more indirectly by taking power from a thermal power station.
Against this backdrop, the government’s enthusiasm to replace the conventional, carburetor-based vehicles with the electric ones seems excessive. Road transport minister Nitin Gadkari’s September 2017 statement that he would “bulldoze” the auto sector was surely avoidable. Ditto for the policy flip-flops that confused and confounded the captains of industry. Antipathy towards the sector also resulted in high taxation.
This led to a huge slowdown in the auto sector, hitting lakhs of direct and indirect jobs. It would be naïve to believe all this did not affect Ford.
The government obviously wants us to believe that it had nothing to do with Ford’s exit. PTI quoted an unnamed government official as saying, “India’s automotive growth story is alive and growing both in domestic and export markets. Ford’s exit is related to possible operational reasons and does not in any way reflect the story of the Indian automobile sector or business environment in India.”
Of course, Ford’s problems in India are well known—weak demand, its inability to compete in the country where low-cost cars sell the most, and failure to have a joint venture with Mahindra & Mahindra. But the policy framework too was unsupportive to stay invested in India.
As for air pollution, there is little that government at any level—Central, state, or local—is doing to check it. It is a well-known fact that shanty towns and unauthorized colonies play havoc with the urban environment. The consequences are rampant encroachments, unregulated and dangerous construction, solid waste dumping, contamination and death of water bodies, drying of aquifers, and long is the list of woes. Unsurprisingly, many areas become dust bowls.
Addressing these issues presupposes a fundamental change in governance and politics. This certainly involves actions that would be disliked by the beneficiaries of chaotic urbanization: the residents, the local authorities, the local politicians, the bleeding-heart activists, even certain sections of the media. Anybody determined to clean up the mess runs the risk of being calumniated as ‘anti-poor,’ heartless, etc.
Similarly, tough measures to end stubble burning in north India in winters—another big cause of air pollution—is politically risky. So, our political masters found a scapegoat in the auto sector.
Besides, there is always glamour associated with ‘thinking outside the box,’ ‘reimagining,’ and other fashionable buzzwords. Blended with green wokeism, novelty captures the attention of those who matter. So, EVs became a rage among the Davos men and women. And among our thought and political leaders.
The denouement: decline of the Indian auto industry, which began before the Covid-19 pandemic. Ford’s exit may be part of it.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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