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Corporate deceit

What price should be put on multinationals violating our environmental laws? The Rs 100 crore fine on Volkwagen is a mere drop, says petitioners

In 2015, millions of car owners of Volkswagen woke up to the news that their German engineered car was one enabled to cheat its consumer. This was a major piece of news. Around the same time Saloni Ailawadi’s father was diagnosed with cancer here in India.

How do these two stories come together? Ailawadi became the petitioner against Volkswagen in the National Green Tribunal, represented by her advocate and husband, Sanjeev Ailawadi.

“One night I found my wife crying. She was upset because of her father and this Volkswagen cheat scandal, she said it showed the transgressions of the company affecting ordinary people,” says Sanjeev Ailawadi The relation here is that the vehicles causing air pollution would put people’s lives in danger, placing them at riskto fatal illnesses.

About 11 million cars worldwide were fitted with “defeat devices” by the company. What it did was, during laboratory emissions, testing the vehicles would show the output of Nitrogen oxides (NOx) meeting regulatory testing, but emit up to 40 times more NOx in real-world driving.

What further cemented Ailawadi’s decision to move the court against the company was the festival of Ahoi Ashtami — a Hindu festival where a mother fasts for the well-being of her children. She couldn’t break her fast because she couldn’t see any stars that night because of the high levels of pollution.

This was, she believed, again something that linked Volkswagens actions — of the companies regularly cheating the people and creating a deadly mix of pollution in the air. And thus, they decided to go to court. The fight wasn’t easy. “It took us 30 hearings for the court to make a decision,” he says.

On November 16, last year, the NGT said that Volkswagen’s use of cheat devices in diesel cars had led to the inference of environmental damage in the country. It had thus asked the company to submit Rs 100 crore to the Central Pollution Control Board till January 18, when it was pulled up by the court.

“Rs 100 crore may be nothing but at least the court has taken some action,” Ailawadi says. But while this has been a positive outcome, he questions why private citizens must approach the court. At the same time, he believes that when such indiscretions come to the notice of “educated person they must do something,” he adds that it should have been the “responsibility of the government to defend its people.”

But instead the “government was in constant denial mode…” “they would have left them (Volkswagen) off (the hook) if it was their prerogative,” the advocate believes.

Volkswagen on its part, did everything it could to stop the case from progressing. First denial and then “mudslinging”, he alleges.

“When rich people get sick, they can go to the US for treatment. What is the price of your parents’ lives? Of ours? The vehicles were grossly violating our environmental laws. And the human tragedy is on a larger scale,” yet, the advocate says despondently that nothing is being done.

The tribunal had said ARAI found nitrogen oxide emissions to be five to nine times higher than the laboratory test limits. Adding that even if there is a 100 per cent recall, for the past violation of norms, the auto manufacturer could not avoid its responsibility.

After the tests by ARAI, Volkswagen India had undertaken to rejig the software by recalling around 3.23 lakh vehicles fitted with EA 189 diesel engines, which were in alleged violation of emission norms.
The company, however, had said that the recall in India was purely voluntary in nature as it did not face any charges regarding violating emission norms in India, unlike in the US.

Symbolic of the allegations that Ailawadi lays on the government for not taking action. With enough news reports talking about the deadly amount of pollutants in the air of our country and especially its capital city, not enough is being done yet to control this ticking time bomb.

Art of Living case
When the Art of Living had its event on the floodplains of the Yamuna in 2016, the NGT had slapped an interim fine of Rs 5 crore. despite the fact that an expert committee telling the NGT that Rs 42.02 crore would be required to restore the area that was reportedly destroyed by the event.

The organisation had instead said that the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) should be held accountable for even granting the event to take place.

It said the event was conducted by “complying with all environmental norms by procuring approvals from the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change department, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, the Uttar Pradesh Irrigation Committee, Delhi Disaster Management Authority, Irrigation and Flood Control Department of Delhi and others.”

Even before the Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s organised event began, the case had reached the Supreme Court after the NGT had given the said event a green light. The SC decided not to interfere, after the Green tribunal had held up its hands calling it a “fait accompli”.

A statement showing NGTs inability at that point to change the course of what was to come.

NGTs actions

The NGT has tried to bring in some changes to the way Delhi emits hazardous gases. It has banned the use of petrol vehicles older than 15 years and diesel vehicles older than 10. A drive to first target diesel vehicles began in October 2018.

In October of last year, NGT directed 23 states and union territories to prepare an action plan to counter the deteriorating air quality.

The NGT wanted the states to consider vehicular, industrial, dust and agricultural pollution, along with garbage burning.

In the first week of January, the NGT directed the city traffic police to evolve a mechanism to refer to Google maps for taking prompt remedial and preventive steps at places witnessing traffic jams.

This was taking into view that decongesting the road of the capital would also, in effect, decrease air pollution.

This year, NGT asked the Ministry of Environment and Forests to look into the effects of hookah, in respect of indoor air pollution.