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Health fears over car ride

New Delhi, Feb. 17: The budget proposal to “give relief” to the automobile sector by cutting excise duties on several segments of cars, including SUVs, could worsen air quality and hurt people’s health, environmental scientists said today.

Many scientists have repeatedly warned that India’s air quality is among the worst in the world and may be contributing to more than 600,000 premature deaths each year.

“We’re extremely disappointed by what has been proposed,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director of research at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a non-government organisation tracking air quality across the country for over a decade.

“This is a reversal of policy from last year,” she told The Telegraph. The government had last year increased the excise duty on SUVs from 27 to 30 per cent.

The CSE said that sales figures from the Society for Indian Automobile Manufacturers suggest that SUV sales rose by 52 per cent over the past year although sales of passenger cars shrank by about 7 per cent.

A global risk assessment had two years ago estimated that poor air quality in India may be contributing to 627,000 premature deaths each year.

Kalpana Balakrishnan from the Indian Council of Medical Research’s Centre for Advanced Research, Chennai, and her colleagues had cautioned in a research paper that policies that could increase vehicular fleets could add “insults to air quality”.

India’s air quality, measured in terms of fine, inhalable particulate matter less than 2.5 millionths of a metre, was ranked by a Yale University report released last month at 177 among 178 countries, with China in the last position.

The CSE has predicted that the 6 per cent duty cut will “push the market” towards heavier cars and SUVs that guzzle more fuel, often diesel.

Several international studies have revealed associations between exposure to particulate matter such as that expelled by burning diesel and an increase in the risk of cardiovascular events such as heart attacks, heart failure, or dangerous disruption of heartbeats.

Unfortunately, environmental health concerns don’t have enough impact on government policies, said Sambandam Sankar, an environmental health scientist at the Sri Ramachandra University, Chennai.

Other scientists caution that there is need for research to segregate the sources of air pollution. “Vehicles, construction activity, dust particles kicked up from unpaved roads --- all of these are independent sources of inhalable matter,” said Bhola Ram Gurjar, a civil engineer at IIT Roorkee.

“Vehicular pollution may reduce if old polluting cars are retired, and the new cars are much more efficient and clean.”