The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Law eye shifts from govt

Calcutta, Dec. 15: When Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's government gets a breather, Calcutta's children may be gasping for air.

Calcutta High Court today turned its eyes on the quality of fuel supplied by oil companies in a case where the state government was required to show progress or otherwise in controlling air pollution.

After twice seeking time to file a compliance report on establishment of auto emission testing centres that can measure levels of pollution under the new norms notified by the central government, the state managed to slip out of focus.

It did file a status report but that is a story of non-compliance, as foul as its record in combating pollution in the backdrop of the alarming fact that 47 per cent of Calcuttans suffer from lower respiratory tract infection.

So far, only three testing centres have been 'upgraded' to check if vehicles are conforming to the new tailpipe emission norms, according to the status report. All existing or new centres were to have the equipment to do so by October, in tune with a directive issued from Delhi.


The state failed to meet the deadline and, seeking more time, said it would set up 50 centres, a commitment not kept.

Intending to get to the 'basics of the problem', the court decided not to take up the status report now. Instead, it asked oil companies to file affidavits by January 12 on the quality of their supplies. It wants to know the percentage of benzene and sulphur components in fuel, which cause pollution.

A national fuel policy already exists, under which oil companies have to follow benzene and sulphur standards.

The court also sought information from the motor vehicles department whether vehicles, which use multiple fuel injection (new generation cars), and those which have carburettors (old vehicles), are meeting emission norms.

These centrally-notified norms are exactly what the state was to make sure vehicles running in its territory complied with by October.

S.M. Ghosh, whose petition in 1999 set the ball rolling, said: 'The case continues to linger as about 4 lakh cars have been added to the city's traffic in the last five years.'

In 1995, when a survey was conducted the last time, some 10,647 deaths were traced to air pollution. Around 55 lakh people were hospitalised in that year. The previous such study in 1991-92 had yielded numbers that were nearly half. It implies that every four-five years, the number of people dying or being hospitalised because of pollution is doubling.

Transport minister Subhas Chakraborty said: 'It is good that the court has asked the oil companies about their contribution to pollution.... However, maintaining fuel quality is the central government's responsibility.'

Chakraborty has been on record saying that autorickshaws, among the biggest polluters, could not be touched because too many people's livelihood depended on them.

Environmentalists are looking at the development differently. Subhas Dutta, an expert assisting the court in the case, said: 'It will be another extended holiday for a government which does not have the minimum concern for the health of its people.'

The chief minister had promised in public that vehicles over 15 years of age would be phased out, but the step was never implemented under pressure from the transport lobby.

'Having a clean environment is one of the prerequisites for industry,' said Nazib Arif, secretary-general of the Indian Chamber of Commerce. 'I hope something will be done immediately before the situation goes out of hand.'

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Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee: Promise not kept Subhas Chakraborty:   Passing the buck