Driving over Miss Daisy

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The common man and small business are inextricably linked. Though the government has become adept at glorifying the opportunities for grassroots oriented economic growth, it’s very easy to see that good things often come in small packages. But if that were indeed true, how would you explain the vilification of one of the most common enterprises that you see around these parts? One refers to the humble rickshaw which keeps moving people in and around our urban areas, yet it never gets any love from us. So one felt compelled to set the record straight for readers concerned about the lives and livelihoods of Pakistanis all over the country.

Not to say that the rickshaws didn’t have it coming to them, but the government’s handling of motorised three-wheelers, while commendable, has been harsh. Citing environmental reasons on account of the pollution they caused, the province of the Punjab first cracked the whip at two-stroke rickshaws by banning their entry on Lahore’s Mall Road in 2006.

Although several roads are now off-limits to the vehicles, it really didn’t have to be this way. If you remember the clouds of smoke those dirty little rickshaws emitted, you would have good reason to despise the two stroke engine. But many are unaware that that amount of smoke was caused not by the nature of the engine in itself, but due to the adulteration in the fuel mix that was put in.

Two-stroke engines need very special oil mixed with petrol in specified quantities to keep the engine running smoothly. This two-stroke (2T) oil is ultimately burned along with the fuel and when the fuel-to-oil ratio is altered, it results in the noxious emissions.

Vehicular air pollution is not a simple beast to tame – yet our government reinforces time and time again that when there is a will, there is a way. Here, however, the adage may be useless as the way presents itself, but the will is absent.

There is indeed an appreciable amount of governmental support for the shift to cleaner four-stroke engine technology and efforts have been made to implement the ban on two-stroke rickshaw production. But tackling the fuel sources of on-road two-stroke technologies should also play an integral part of a dedicated program against pollution.

Over ten years ago, one had the opportunity to investigate the vibrant adulteration industry in Lahore. The study revealed that there are a range of actors along the product life cycle who are dependent on this multimillion rupee trade which has managed to entrench itself in the shadows of a reticent Environment Protection Agency and negligent oil companies. Traders dealing in barrel loads of adulterated oil take a slice of the pie with as much zeal and callousness as do the filling station workers trying to keep costs down. The grassroots interface therefore belies the spirit of clear legislative provisions contained in the Pakistan Penal Code, the code of Criminal Procedure, the Pakistan Environment Protection Act, the Punjab Local Government Ordinance and the Pakistan Petroleum Rules.

If the government is interested in comprehensive regulation of the two-stroke rickshaw industry, it has to recognise that simply banning them from roads in the provincial headquarters is not going to cut it. After all, the smoke belchers would simply go and pollute some other place. So if the government really is committed to cleaning up its act, it is going to have to implement the following recommendations.

As a first step, clamping down on the sale of loose 2T oil would be the single most effective feature of a dedicated campaign against oil adulteration and pollution. If the government could then mandate the sale of only pre-mixed fuel at filling stations, you would see a marked reduction in the emissions of two-stroke rickshaws.

The government may also begin to consider petroleum products to be as hazardous in urban centres as they would be when spilt in the ocean. In order to mitigate the consequences of release into urban waterways, sewers, drainage systems and landfills, it is vital for the oil refineries to establish communal treatment and reclamation centres in municipalities as this will prevent access to the raw material.

And finally the government needs to be aware of the fact that oil adulterators benefit from the availability of empty oil drums that can be bought from recyclers and depots operating specifically for this purpose. Compulsory recall of these empty containers by the oil companies would be easy to implement through the distribution network and would render the practice of adulteration a physical impossibility.

Having gone through these recommendations, it would appear that the burden should fall not just on the rickshaw driver but also the oil companies. But something tells us the government has no intention of taking them to task. Perhaps this needs to change before some poor sap is deprived of his livelihood.

The writer is a consultant on public policy.