February 22, 2011

life in general & financial markets: (part 3) india's obsession with diesel cars

I share below a latest statement from the Centre for Science and Environment on India's pathetic obsession with diesel cars.

Press Release

Finance Minister, it is time to take a decision to stop misuse of diesel subsidy by the rich diesel car owners. Any further delay will cost hugely to the nation and our health

New Delhi, February 18, 2011: India cannot afford to delay the decision to take away the current incentive for diesel cars given the public health and energy security implications -- the message that Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has for Pranab Mukherjee, as he gets set to present this year’s Budget.

CSE has drawn the attention of the Finance Minister to the recent trends that show that the car industry is on an overdrive to introduce more new diesel car models even in the small car segments that had not seen much diesel penetration earlier. The combination of cheap diesel and lure of lesser taxes on small cars will make the diesel car numbers explode now. Already, diesel cars constitute 36 per cent of new car sales – this is expected to be half soon. Since 2008, the price gap has increased from 28 per cent to 35 per cent in Delhi. It is deplorable that cars are not being made to pay the full costs when the oil companies are losing Rs 7-9 per litre of diesel.

Says Anumita Roychoudhury, head of CSE’s air pollution team: “CSE condemns this perverse subsidy. If the use of subsidised diesel continues to increase, the government will continue to incur a huge revenue loss as it earns much less from excise on a litre of diesel used by cars, as opposed to petrol.” The Union government earns more than three times higher excise revenue from every litre of petrol used by a petrol car compared to a litre of diesel used by a diesel car. Revenue losses will compound with increased share of diesel cars and SUVs. Only in Delhi, this revenue loss amounts to close to Rs 300 crore. This can be mammoth on a nation-wide basis. “The government cannot justify this,” adds Roychoudhury.

The car industry is spawning the myth that fuel-efficient diesel cars will help save fuels and lower climate impacts. On the contrary, the market trend clearly shows that diesel is aiding a steady shift towards bigger cars that guzzle more fuel. While 85 per cent of the petrol cars sold in India have less than 1,200 cc engines, 64 per cent of diesel cars are just under 1,500 cc; the rest are all above. Despite fuel efficiency, bigger engines will always use more fuel and cheaper diesel fuel will encourage customers to opt for bigger and more powerful cars and thus undermine energy security. Higher petrol prices have effectively kept its market predominantly in small car segment.

CSE cautioned that cheaper diesel fuel will always encourage bigger cars, more driving and more fuel guzzling in the rebound. The ongoing India assessment of the International Council on Clean Transportation shows that these trends can lead to a cumulative loss of 6.5 mtoe (million tonne of oil equivalent) of energy between 2010 and 2020. This equals the fuel use of all four-wheeled passenger vehicles in 2006 -- around 6.6 mtoe. This defeats the objective of improving India’s energy security.

Auto industry’s claim of greater fuel efficiency and lesser carbon emissions from diesel cars is unacceptable as diesel fuel has higher carbon content than petrol. If more diesel is burnt encouraged by its cheaper prices, more heat-trapping CO2 will escape. Also, black carbon emissions from diesel vehicles are several times more heat-trapping than CO2 and this nullifies fuel efficiency gains.

The car industry is pitching for tax concession for bigger cars and to stop increase in taxes on diesel cars in this budget when ‘clean’ diesel (diesel with less than 15 ppm of sulphur) is not available in the country.

CSE researchers demand that “the excise on big cars and SUVs must remain at 24 per cent and the special excise duty on bigger cars, MUVs and SUVs must be fully restored and increased in the forthcoming budget. This is a critical energy security measure.”

It is ironic that tax differential is being officially justified in the name of agriculture and freight, but rich car owners benefit more. Cars have already become the second biggest user of diesel and beneficiaries of the official tax policy. Cars use up 15 per cent of the total diesel in the country – compared to 12 per cent by buses and agriculture, 10 per cent by industry, and 6 per cent by the railways.

CSE has drawn attention of the Finance Minister to the global practices in which other governments have taken fiscal measures to discourage diesel in cars. In Brazil, diesel cars are actively discouraged because of the policy to keep taxes lower on diesel. In Denmark, diesel cars are taxed higher to offset the lower prices of diesel fuel. In China, taxes do not differentiate between petrol and diesel. The European Commission has calculated the difference in lifetime pollution costs of Euro IV compliant diesel car and petrol car. The total pollution cost of a Euro IV diesel car is 1,195 Euros vis-a-vis 846 Euros for a petrol car. This nullifies the marginal greenhouse gas reduction benefit of diesel car and costs higher to the society.

The Finance Minister can not afford to ignore the economic and environmental consequences of diesel pricing. Several committees including Kirit Parikh Committee have already recommended additional excise duty to eliminate the incentives arising from the lower diesel taxes.

Tax measures are absolutely necessary to discourage diesel cars until the time India introduced clean diesel (diesel fuel with 10 ppm sulphur used along with advanced emissions control systems) nation-wide. Otherwise, health risk associated with conventional diesel emissions is very serious. Some of the deadliest air toxics, also carcinogens, are related to diesel emissions. These are even blamed for killing unborn foetuses. According to WHO and other international regulatory and scientific agencies diesel particulates are carcinogens.

What CSE demands
  • Additional, substantial and effective excide duty on diesel cars to prevent dieselization of car segment.
  • Align small diesel car definition with that of petrol. Currently small petrol car is legally defined as one with length not exceeding 4,000 mm and with an engine capacity not exceeding 1,200 cc. For diesel small car this has been relaxed to 1,500 cc for diesel cars. Make it same as small petrol car for the purpose of tax measures.
  • Fully restore 24 per cent excise and increase further the special duty on all big cars.
  • Taxes must also begin to reflect the actual fuel use in cars to prevent shift towards bigger cars that use more fuel and threaten energy security.

For more details, please contact Anumita Roychoudhury at anumita@cseindia.org. To set up interviews with CSE researchers and experts, write to Papia Samajdar at papia@cseindia.org, or speak to her at 99108 64339.

February 17, 2011

life in general & financial markets: smell the industrial pollution

I do not travel much. But whenever I have, and have done so by rail or road, and from one state to another, I have passed by certain areas where I have had the unpleasant experience of smelling nauseous gases emitting from industries. This is more acute when traveling past these areas in the night when there would be no vigilance by state authorities. In my limited travel experience I can point out two such notorious places -- Baroda in Gujarat and a place in Uttaranchal Pradesh that comes on the way from Delhi to Dehra Dun by train.

Industrial pollution is not quite felt by urban India as the factories that spew out deadly gases in the air or release toxic liquid and solid waste on the ground. But it is felt by the villagers and small-town folk who live in or around these remote areas. In these areas, industrial pollution is on a rampage in our country and I am sure in many other countries as well.

It is so because influential people such as politicians, bureaucrats, conscious and articulate elite, and media editors reside in urban areas and do not acutely experience the consequences. Each state in our country has a pollution control board and a vast majority of them have a miserable track record of bringing accountability to the polluters, large or small. We do have strong environment laws passed by the central government and various state governments but they are largely on paper.

Among the heavy industrial pollutants that cause the most damage, when allowed to emit without control, are ones spewed out by sponge iron industry (used to make steel), petrochemicals industry, pesticide-manufacturing companies, coal-based power plants, basic chemicals industry and oil refineries.

It is not that industries and companies, at least a few of them, are not using technology or processes to curtain the toxic emissions, but the rate of growth of production by industrial India is far more than the rate of use of pollution-control mechanisms.
Even though the environment regulators at the state and central level may be sleeping, I believe we, the urban people, can make a difference. All industrial production goes into making various products and articles that we, urbanites, consume. We can curtail such production by moderating our consumption. Every effort counts.

February 04, 2011

life in journalism: egyptian government's violence extends to local & foreign media

The ongoing attempt by the people of Egypt to free themselves from the nasty regime of Hosni Mubarak has involved many counter-attempts by the Egyptian government authorities to intimidate the people through violence and other means. 

Now, due to last week's  coverage of the massive people-led demonstrations, even journalists, local and foreign, are being physically attacked in Egypt.

Here is a newsreport that throws light on the happenings there:

Why are reporters being attacked?
By Ashley Fantz, CNN
February 4, 2011 -- Updated 0547 GMT (1347 HKT)

Attacks against journalists send a message.

"It clearly conveys that the government is not in favor of democratic reforms because journalists represent free speech, and free speech is crucial to democracy," said Kelly McBride, a media ethics teacher at the Poynter Institute, a U.S.-based professional journalism training center and think tank.

"The point of silencing a journalist is to pull the curtain over what's happening," she said. "The other reason is to create fear, to intimidate other reporters."

Journalists from Egypt, Great Britain, the United States, India, Australia, Greece and other countries have reported being jumped, beaten, detained and interrogated this week while reporting on the uprising against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

At least one Swedish journalist was reportedly stabbed. One was marched back to her hotel at gunpoint. Many said their cameras and other equipment were smashed. A few are reportedly unaccounted for. First-hand accounts of the crackdown are lighting up Twitter. One of two correspondents from Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper tweeted a chilling timeline leading up to their apparent detainment.

In a one-day span, attacks on reporters included 30 detentions, 26 assaults and eight instances of equipment seized, and plainclothes and uniformed agents reportedly entered at least two hotels where international journalists were staying to confiscate media equipment, said the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based organization, on Thursday.

"Mubarak forces have attacked the very breadth of global journalism: Their targets have included Egyptians and other Arab journalists, Russian and U.S. reporters, Europeans and South Americans," CPJ said in a news release.

The Egyptian government has publicly criticized the violence and denied involvement, but on Thursday, Vice President Omar Suleiman said international TV reporters are part of the problem.

"I actually blame certain friendly nations who have television channels, they're not friendly at all, who have intensified the youth against the nation and the state," Suleiman said in a TV address.

"They have filled in the minds of the youth with wrongdoings, with allegations and this is unacceptable. ... They should have never done that. They should have never sent this enemy spirit."

The attacks and harassment of journalists seem to be part of an organized effort, said State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley. In a tweet early Thursday, he said: "There is a concerted campaign to intimidate international journalists in Cairo and interfere with their reporting. We condemn such actions."

State Department officials told CNN they have information that Egypt's Interior Ministry was behind the journalist detentions, citing reports from the U.S. Embassy in Egypt.

But in an interview with CNN, Crowley stopped short of naming the people behind the violence and harassment. "I can't tell you who is directing it but with the increasing number of instances of people roughing up journalist(s), cars attacked, offices broken into, journalists detained, these do not seem to be random events," he said.

Crowley suggested the attackers' endgame is intimidation, to make reporters afraid to file stories about an anticipated increase in anti-Mubarak protesters likely to take to the streets this weekend.

The violence toward journalists in Egypt seems more brazen and systematic than in any recent conflict, said Mohamed Abdel Dayem of the CPJ. Since 1981, it has tracked attacks and deaths of reporters targeted for doing their jobs. The only conflict in recent times that compares to the current situation, Dayem said, is the Algerian civil war in the 1990s.

The high number of attacks in Egypt might be, in part, because there were already a large number of reporters working in Cairo bureaus before the protests against Mubarak began, McBride said. News organizations, at least until recently, considered Cairo a convenient and friendly base from which to travel to more hostile areas in Africa and the Middle East.

Of course, that doesn't lessen outrage right now about the way reporters are being treated. But will it matter a week from now, a month from now? Will it affect the outcome of the movement to democratize Egypt?

"It's such a fast-moving story, it's impossible to know the answer now," said Barbara Cochran, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She was a vice president for news for National Public Radio and an executive producer of NBC's "Meet the Press."

She's covered several violent uprisings throughout her career, including China's Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

"This is not like any other face-off between a regime that refuses to leave power and a people refusing to back down," she said.

"How it's covered, whether journalists will feel secure enough to cover it, will matter."

Newer technology -- the Web, Twitter, Facebook, smaller and cheaper recording devices such as Flip Cams -- has liberated reporting in many ways, Cochran said. But it also made journalists easier targets.

"When I was working, you could get into a country, do the reporting and get out without anyone sending a tweet out about your presence," she said. "And there wasn't a huge rush to report immediately, as there is now with news agencies competing to be the first to report online what's happening."

The story in Egypt is also unique because the Egyptian government managed to shut off access to the internet, blocking information that bloggers might have provided.

Consider that without Twitter or other social media tools, 2009's popular protests against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over contested election results would have been largely underreported, McBride and Cochran said.

Foreign journalists were blocked from entering the country. Ultimately, Ahmadinejad remained in power.

"I thought Iran would (be the country) in my mind that hit rock bottom (in how it treated reporters), but what Mubarak is doing is unspeakable," said Dayem.

In denying that the Egyptian government is behind the violence, Mubarak told ABC News on Thursday that the Muslim Brotherhood is to blame.

But there are other regions where sustained violence toward journalists has been raging for years, and little change has come of it. In Mexico, for instance, cartel violence continues despite the disappearance or death of more than 30 reporters since 2006, CPJ reported.

Egypt, perhaps, seems different to Western audiences, said McBride.

"Cairo resonates with us. It's an ally, tourism is big there. Most people considered it safe. I think part of why this story has captivated an audience is because they are saying, 'This is not the Egypt I thought I knew.' "

February 02, 2011

life in general & financial markets: (part 2) the farce that is india's environment ministry

There is an insightful story in the latest issue (dated 7 Feb '11) of weekly Outlook magazine on India's environment minister Jairam Ramesh's failure to deliver on the ground. I share it below.

Here goes (pics below are from Outlook's story itself):

Sandipan Chatterjee
It won’t rain forever Vedanta bauxite refinery plant in the Niyamgiri hills, Orissa

The Green Turns Grey
The environment minister promised much, but his flip-flops of late raise concern
Anuradha Raman

Mr Compromised
  • Vedanta In ’09, Jairam said no to mining. Now says yes to refinery expansion though water is scarce.
  • Polavaram dam Gives forest clearance, then seeks explanation
  • Posco Under litigation as the ministry says yes to forest clearance for iron ore/steel plant
  • Lavasa township Ministry report says ecologically sensitive Ghats will be affected. Later, Jairam lets off promoters with a fine.
  • National Green Tribunal Set up after dismantling the National Environment Tribunal. It allows any party (including violators) to appeal against decisions.
Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh is fast discovering that striking a balance between the environment, wildlife, coastal zones, forests and corporate lobbies can be quite a minefield. On one side, whispers abound on how the minister missed out on being elevated to cabinet rank because of his green-is-my-favourite-colour theme song while, on the other, environmentalists express disappointment that he has not lived up to all the promises made. While no one disputes that the minister has raised awareness (or that he is a huge improvement on his predecessors), a perception is gaining ground that the minister has not quite delivered.
Indeed, the U-turns done by the ministry under his stewardship has baffled many. Vedanta, Polavaram, the Lavasa township and the coastal regulatory laws are some of the big issues on which Jairam not only appears to have backtracked but also compromised. And we are not even talking of the smaller projects that have not got much media attention. Somewhere down the line, the minister appears to have lost the goodwill of the very people whose causes he wants to champion. He says (see interview) he’s got his share of brickbats and bouquets. But such admissions alone will not help. Says Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), “One expected transparent, participatory, environment-friendly policies and practices from someone who claims he believes in these values. When you do not see that, one is disappointed.”
Himanshu adds here that Jairam is more accessible and responsive than his predecessor, A. Raja, and initial action taken on projects like Posco, Vedanta, Adarsh apartments, the Navi Mumbai airport, the Lavasa project and  Maheshwar, among others, are welcome in parts. But there have also been many reversals, which some activists describe as the result of “a forked-tongue approach”. There are many who argue the minister should have initiated systemic actions. “Systems on compliance, transparency, better EIAS (environment impact assessments), greater participation by the affected people, nailing the fraudulent officers in charge of projects are some of the things he should have done. The minister hasn’t, raising doubts on whose side he is batting for.”
The environmentalists say inaction has led to a lot of confusion on the approval of big projects. For example, Jairam’s public utterings showing his willingness to allow the Vedanta refinery to expand after saying no to mining has muddied matters. “Where is the water for the refinery going to come from? Vedanta has already exhausted the streams nearby,” says Shankar Balakrishnan of Campaign for Survival and Dignity. Adds Himanshu, “While the minister earned praise for saying no to mining, he is sending confusing signals by agreeing to the expansion of the refinery.”
Similarly on Posco, Shankar argues that the ministry has not taken into account the views of the local people. “The Forest Rights Act needs to be complied with. But how come the environment ministry keeps giving approvals and then puts conditions? It’s confusing,” he says. Posco’s iron-ore mine, steel plant and private port (India’s largest foreign investment of Rs 52,000 crore) was granted forest clearance in 2009 and then a condition was added that it was subject to clearance of the Forest Rights Act (FRA)! Later, under pressure, a committee was appointed by the ministry to look at the FRA clearance under the stewardship of an official, in whose tenure an environment clearance was given to the project way back in ’05.
In Andhra Pradesh, there’s the controversial Polavaram dam which threatens to displace close to two lakh people, another example of how Jairam’s ministry approves and then disapproves. His ministry gave a forest clearance on July 28, 2010, without looking into the rights of the people. Prior to Jairam taking over, an environment clearance had already been sought for the project in ’05. While Jairam wrote in October 2010 to the Andhra CM enquiring whether the concerns of the local community had been factored in, little has come of it so far.
The Polavaram project threatens to displace mostly people from the marginalised adivasi communities. The project requires approximately 3,700 hectares of forest land as well as the sanction of the majority of these communities (who are entitled under the Forest Rights Act). The ministry granted the final forest clearance for the project in December ’09, stating that the approval is based on the assurance of the Andhra government that there are no rights to be settled under the Forest Rights Act in the project area. This, when the ministry’s own circular requires that the gram sabhas—not the state government—have to certify to the proper implementation of the law and have to grant their consent.
The ministry’s conditional clearance to the Lavasa township, said to have the backing of Congress ally, the NCP, is also intriguing. As per the environment ministry report, the Rs 3,000-crore hill town near Pune threatens to impact the Western Ghats. But now the builders have been let off with just a rap on the knuckles—in this case just a penalty.
Levelled off Aerial view of the Lavasa cityscape, in the core of the Western Ghats. (Photograph by Apoorva Salkade)
Adding to the list of damp squibs is Jairam’s inability to put transparent systems in place. Right from when he took over, environment groups had advised that conflict of interest rules be spelt out clearly, especially when it came to appointments on the Environment Assessment Committee on river valley and hydroelectric projects. The committee’s objective is to evaluate the environmental and social impacts of large dams and also look at no-dam options, and decide if the impact of the proposals are acceptable or not and if the project is viable.
The ministry has done little to appoint people with the right credentials. The current chairperson is a man who has served on the National Committee of the International Commission on Large Dams (INCOLD), a rabidly pro-large dam organisation which essentially works as a lobbying mechanism!
Meanwhile, what is really troubling environmentalists is the undue haste the ministry is showing in approving projects. Says Ritwick Datta, a lawyer who sought information under the RTI Act, “The minister’s own response was that as many as 535 projects of the total 769 projects have been approved and six were rejected! The period for which information was sought was from August 1, 2009, till July 31, 2010.”
On his part, Jairam says he is no enviro-caliph. But it’s time he becomes one, say environment experts.

February 01, 2011

life in general: 'live from the egyptian revolution'

(pic immediately below taken from http://news.bbcimg.co.uk/media/images/51049000/jpg/_51049700_tahrir2_384.jpg)

For too long, over 30 years, Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak has been a dictator ruler of the country. 
And he has been shamelessly supported by US and European countries.  

The uprising that is currently shaping up in Egypt is a very positive thing and an indication that governments that manipulate and terrorise its people, openly or cunningly, can not do it indefinitely.

Here is a passionate newsreport by an Egyptian:

Live From the Egyptian Revolution

by Sharif Abdel Kouddous
CAIRO, Egypt -- I grew up in Egypt. I spent half my life here. But Saturday, when my plane from JFK airport touched down in Cairo, I arrived in a different country than the one I had known all my life. This is not Hosni Mubarak's Egypt anymore and, regardless of what happens, it will never be again.
In Tahrir Square, thousands of Egyptians-men and women, young and old, rich and poor-gathered today to celebrate their victory over the regime's hated police and state security forces and to call on Mubarak to step down and leave once and for all. They talked about the massive protest on Friday, the culmination of three days of demonstrations that began on January 25th to mark National Police Day. It was an act of popular revolt the likes of which many Egyptians never thought they would see during Mubarak's reign. "The regime has been convincing us very well that we cannot do it, but Tunisians gave us an idea and it took us only three days and we did it," said Ahmad El Esseily, a 35 year-old author and TV/radio talk show host who took park in the demonstrations. "We are a lot of people and we are strong."
In Cairo, tens of thousands of people--from all walks of life--faced off against riot police armed with shields, batons, and seemingly endless supplies of tear gas. People talked about Friday's protest like a war; a war they'd won. "Despite the tear gas and the beatings, we just kept coming, wave after wave of us," one protester said. "When some of us would tire, others would head in. We gave each other courage." After several hours, the police were forced into a full retreat. Then, as the army was sent in, they disappeared.
The military was greeted warmly on the streets of Cairo. Crowds roared with approval as one soldier was carried through Tahrir square today holding a flower in his hand. Dozens of people clambered onto tanks as they rode around the square. Throughout the day people chanted: "The people, the army: one hand."
While the police and state security forces are notorious in Egypt for torture, corruption and brutality, the army has not interacted with the civilian population for more than 30 years and is only proudly remembered for having delivered a victory in the 1973 war with Israel. A 4pm curfew set for today was casually ignored with people convinced the army would not harm them. The police were a different story. Their brutality the past few days--decades in fact--has been well documented.
Saturday, some of the police forces were holed up inside their headquarters in the Interior Ministry building near the end of a street connected to Tahrir Square. When protesters neared the building, the police began firing live ammunition at the crowd, forcing them to flee back to the square. Three bloodied people were carried out. "The police are killing us," one man yelled desperately while on the phone with al Jazeera from outside the building. When the firing stopped, defiant protesters began approaching the building again. In the background, the smoking, blackened shell of Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party headquarters served as an ominous reminder of their intentions.
At this point it seems clear the people are not leaving the streets. They own them now and they are refusing to go until Mubarak does. They chanted, "Mubarak, the plane is waiting for you at the airport," and "Wake up Mubarak, today is your last day."
At one point, a rumor spread through Tahrir Square that Mubarak had fled the country. A massive cheer rippled through the crowd. People began jumping up and down in joy. One man wept uncontrollably. When it turned out not to be true, the cheers quickly ended but it provided a brief glimpse of the sheer raw desire for Mubarak's ouster. Reports now indicate that Mubarak's two sons and his wife, Suzanne, have fled Egypt, as have some of his closest business cronies. Many people believe that is a sign that Hosni will not be far behind.
There is a great sense of pride that this is a leaderless movement organized by the people. A genuine popular revolt. It was not organized by opposition movements, though they have now joined the protesters in Tahrir. The Muslim Brotherhood was out in full force today. At one point they began chanting "Allah Akbar" only to be drowned out by much louder chants of "Muslim, Christian, we are all Egyptian."
As the sun set over Cairo, silence fell upon Tahrir square as thousands stopped to pray in the street while others stood atop tanks. After the sunset prayer, they held a 'ganaza'-a prayer for those killed in the demonstrations. Darkness fell and the protesters, thousands of them, have vowed to stay in the square, sleeping out in the open, until Mubarak is ousted.
Meanwhile, across Cairo there is not a policeman in sight and there are reports of looting and violence. People worry that Mubarak is intentionally trying to create chaos to somehow convince people that he is needed. The strategy is failing. Residents have taken matters into their own hands, helping to direct traffic and forming armed neighborhood watches, complete with checkpoints and shift changes, in districts across the city.
Sharif Abdel KouddousThis is the Egypt I arrived in today. Fearless and determined. It cannot go back to what it was. It will never be the same.
Sharif Abdel Kouddous is a senior producer for the radio/TV show Democracy Now.
Follow him on Twitter at @sharifkouddous.