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The Real Reason Why the Supreme Court Had To Ban Petcoke

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The Supreme Court of India recently imposed a ban on the use of petcoke and furnace oil in the states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana which are situated in the National Capital Region (NCR). The ban comes in the wake of several public interest petitions filed before the Supreme Court as well as the National Green Tribunal regarding the alarming rise in air pollution in Delhi and the associated health and environmental hazards.

The Court severely rebuked the Government for its lackadaisical attitude towards addressing the issue despite prior directions being issued by an expert panel appointed by the Court which demanded a prohibition on petcoke and other excessively polluting fossil fuels. Although, petcoke and furnace oil were officially banned in Delhi in 1996, their rampant use in neighboring states by the cement factories, dyeing units, brick kilns and other industries has turned Delhi into India’s air pollution capital.

What exactly is petcoke?

Petcoke is an exceptionally polluting form of carbon which is banned in several countries due to its severe toxicity. It is categorized as a “bottom of the barrel” fuel as it is essentially residual waste material which is obtained after refining coal to extract lighter fuels like petrol. Petcoke is abundantly used in India in several manufacturing industries such as cement, steel and textile and it is generated in vast quantities by refineries as it is significantly cheaper that coal, has high calorific value and is easier to transport and store.

Impact on health

While vehicular fuels like petrol and diesel contain 50 parts per million (PPM) of sulphur oxide, furnace oil contains 23,000 PPM and petcoke contains a whopping 74,000 PPM of sulphur content which is released into the atmosphere as emissions. Apart from sulphur, petcoke also releases a cocktail of other toxic chemicals such as nitrous oxide, mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel, hydrogen chloride and greenhouse gases (GHG) which contribute to global warming. It is also important to note that petcoke is much more potent than coal and causes greater harm to the environment and health.

According to a 2015 report published by The Lancet Commission, 8 residents of Delhi die each day as a result of air pollution. Delhi has been ranked as India’s most polluted city and is also among the world’s most critically polluted cities.

As per the report, India has topped the list of pollution related deaths in 2015 with a staggering 2.5 million deaths due to pollution. The report also revealed that only a handful of cities in India comply with the air quality standards prescribed by the Central Pollution Control Board and identified that the primary cause behind increasing air pollution as fossil fuels.

In Delhi alone, 2.2 million children suffer from irreversible lung damage caused due to air pollution. Further, air pollution has contributed to a host of diseases including autism, epilepsy, headaches and cancer.

Petcoke has a deleterious effect on the respiratory system and particulate matter can get embedded in lung tissues, causing serious long term health hazards.

India’s carbon tax model and its impact on industry

The reason for the petcoke menace in the recent years can be directly attributed to the Central Government’s inherently flawed carbon tax policy. Carbon tax was introduced in India in 2010 and has since its inception been fraught with complications due to its improper structuring and pervasive maladministration. Among the many intrinsic loopholes in the carbon tax policy is its questionable coverage. Unlike many other jurisdictions such as Australia, the scope of India’s carbon tax is myopically restricted to coal, thereby excluding other forms of greenhouse gases (GHG) emitting fuels like petcoke and furnace oil; many of which have a deeper impact on the environment and health than coal.

Given that the main objective of carbon tax is to mitigate negative externalities of fossil fuels on the environment, and act as a pigouvian tax, logic dictates that it should be applicable on all sources of carbon emissions. A broad based coverage is a necessary component of any progressive carbon tax policy as evidenced from international experience. Yet, the Indian Government has chosen to maintain a narrow coverage, thereby diluting the purpose and efficacy of carbon tax and encouraging polluters to shift from the dirty coal to even dirtier petcoke.

The industry was quick to exploit this obvious loophole and shift from coal to other forms of carbon which were free from the tax bracket. Although petcoke is much more harmful than coal both from an environmental and health perspective, there is no tax or cess levied on the use or production of petcoke.

In order to circumvent the current carbon cess of Rs 400 per metric tonne on coal, cement and steel manufacturers have been heavily relying on petcoke, thereby increasing carbon emissions and air pollution. While India witnessed a decrease in coal imports by 20 million tonnes last year, petcoke imports doubled exceeding 10 million tonnes. In recent years, petcoke is also being used in captive power generation plants in India. Big polluters like Reliance and Essar have capitalized on this demand and made huge profits after the imposition of carbon tax.

India’ carbon tax policy has always been weak and riddled with inefficiencies; however, post GST it has become positively redundant. Earlier, proceeds from the carbon cess used to be accumulated in an earmarked non-lapsable fund known as the National Clean Energy Fund (NCEF). The NCEF was supposed to be used for funding clean energy projects and encourage industries to shift from fossil fuels to clean energy. Yet, over the years the fund has been treated more like a general corpus for the Government to dip into for ad hoc projects. In fact, out of the 57 billion USD accumulated in the NCEF, only a miniscule fraction has actually been deployed towards the original intended purpose. However, the coup de grâce to the NCEF and carbon tax was the introduction of GST under which all the proceeds are now being funneled to compensate states for loss arising out of the introduction of the GST regime.

Currently, China and India are the leading consumers and importers of petcoke in order to catalyze rapid industrialization and economic growth. However, since 2014, China has steadily been decreasing its dependence on petcoke by shifting to cleaner alternatives. India on the other hand, continues to increase its consumption of petcoke and other non-carbon fossil fuels. 

The need to translate words into action

In recent years, the government has experimented with several measures to curb the levels of air pollution and carbon emissions by levying carbon tax, cutting down traffic and most recently banning the sale and use of fireworks in Delhi. However, these measures have been met with lukewarm response due to poorly structured policies and lack of implementation.

The Supreme Court’s ban in a few select states is not going to solve the real problem. Petcoke, furnace oil and other non-carbon fossil fuel based alternatives to coal are used across India to avoid the carbon tax. In the ongoing COP 23 in Bonn this November, India will undoubtedly reiterate its ambitious plans to mitigate climate change by cutting down on carbon emissions and making efforts to switch to clean energy. Over the years, this very same rhetoric has been repeated ad nauseum.

It is high time that talk was translated into action. The need of the hour is to design a long-term sustainable fossil fuel policy which incorporates international best practices and does not allow polluters any flexibility to switch from one fossil fuel to another. Specifically, the carbon tax policy needs to be revamped entirely to reflect India’s ambitious international commitments towards mitigating climate change.

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South Asia

Taliban and the crisis in Afghanistan

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Source: Twitter

In 2021, the Afghan Taliban took back control of Afghanistan after fighting a rebellion for twenty years. The Taliban reformed and began regaining territory less than 10 years after the American-led invasion that overthrew the previous regime in 2001. In line with a 2020 peace agreement with the Taliban, they staged a swift assault as the US started to evacuate its last forces from Afghanistan.

Even though they promised to preserve the rights of women and communities of religious and racial minorities, the Taliban have enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law. The Taliban have failed to provide Afghans with sufficient food supplies and economic possibilities as they have evolved from an insurgent organization to a functioning administration.

Numerous instances of human rights violations have been documented by the UN mission in Afghanistan. Because the Taliban scared off journalists and put limits on press freedom, more than 200 news outlets had to close. Activists and protesters have been tracked and forcefully disappeared, and their government has ruthlessly suppressed protests. They also reinstated the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which was previously in place, and enforced laws against actions judged to be contrary to Islam. They instructed judges to apply their version of sharia in November 2022; in the following weeks, authorities resumed public hangings and floggings.

Women’s rights have been undermined. Due to restrictions put in place by the Taliban, girls are not allowed to go to high school, and women are not allowed to go to college or teach there. The group banned women from working for local and international voluntary groups in December 2022. According to estimates from the UN Development Program (UNDP), limiting women’s employment might cost Afghanistan’s GDP up to 5%. Amnesty International reports a substantial increase in the number of women jailed for defying discriminatory rules, such as those requiring women to cover their whole bodies while in public and to only appear with male chaperones. In addition, there are now more child marriages.

The UNDP says that the Taliban’s rule has also taken away the gains that Afghans made in their living conditions in the 20 years after the US invasion. In a study from October 2022, the organization claimed that practically all Afghans were living in poverty. Since the takeover, the economy has contracted by up to 30%, and there have been an estimated 700,000 job losses. More than 90% of individuals are impacted by food insecurity. The problem is getting worse because several countries and international groups have stopped giving aid, which is vital to the economy and public health.

International observers are nonetheless worried that the Taliban pose a danger to national and international security through their funding of terrorist groups, especially Al-Qaeda. Taliban leadership might convert Afghanistan into a haven for terrorists who could launch attacks against the US and its allies, despite Taliban pledges that the country’s territory wouldn’t be used against the security of any other country. The violence has also increased along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, which has always supported the Taliban. Tehrik-e-Taliban, a terrorist organization commonly referred to as the Pakistani Taliban, has gained strength due to the Taliban’s ascent to power. The organization broke off a cease-fire with the Pakistani government in 2022 and began carrying out assaults throughout the nation. Officials from Pakistan have charged the Afghan Taliban with giving the extremists a safe harbor in their country.

For many years, the Afghan government relied on help from a number of countries; according to 2019 World Bank research, contributions from foreign partners funded 75% of the government’s public expenditures. Many of these countries stopped off aid when the Taliban took control, fueling concerns about potential future economic turmoil. Nevertheless, aid rose in 2022 as donors sent more than $2.6 billion. The US has donated more than $1.1 billion in help since the coup. However, according to UN authorities, the pledges fell short of the nation’s humanitarian requirements.

Many Western countries, most notably the US, shut down their diplomatic posts in Afghanistan when the Taliban took power. Diplomatic relations and recognition have been withheld from the Taliban regime, which refers to Afghanistan as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The UN General Assembly has also postponed a decision on who would indefinitely represent Afghanistan at the UN. The Taliban are now being investigated by the International Criminal Court for suspected atrocities, including crimes against humanity, committed against Afghans.

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South Asia

Decoding Donald Lu’s Visit: A Positive Upward in US-Bangladesh Relations?

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The U.S Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Donald Lu paid a visit from January 12 to 15. During his brief but swarming itinerary the two parties discussed various issues ranging from diplomatic to political. Interestingly, this is the 11th visit of any U.S high-official in the past two years. The frequent swapping of delegations from the both sides pose a critical juncture between the U.S-Bangladesh relationship. Experts believe that recurrent visits from US high-ups are definitely an auspicious sign between the relationship of the two nations. Therefore, the visit of Donald Lu is an offshoot of the “growing reciprocity and renewed engagement” between Dhaka and Washington.

Needless to say, Bangladesh has a long standing and steady relationship with the US since the latter recognized the former shortly after independence on April 04, 1972. Recently the US-Bangladesh celebrated the completion of 50 years of bilateral relationship and US President Joe Biden termed this as “robust partnership”. Amid such backdrop, it goes without saying that the recent visits signal to a significant positive tie-up between the two parties and the visit can be interpreted in the context of international and domestic backdrop of international politics.

The US is the largest market for Bangladesh’s RMG export. Naturally, the issue of GSP reinstatement plays a key role in bilateral camaraderie. Under such circumstances, Lu’s visit is important to hold talks of economic in the context of Bangladesh’s growing needs, especially after the LDC graduation. Moreover, in the annual Global Firepower 2023 Military Strength Ranking, Bangladesh is placed 40th out of 145 nations. On the other hand, Bangladesh came in 12th place on the GFP review’s list of ‘Strengths on the Rise,’ which emphasizes national military powers based on strong growth patterns until 2023. In this context, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and Acquisition and Cross-servicing Agreement (ACSA) agreement indicates to a deeper and strategic engagement from the US rationale.

Bangladesh’s stands at the heart of a strategic position of the US’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, which aims to counter the increasing footprint of China in the Indo-Pacific region. However, Bangladesh maintains a neutral position in terms of its foreign relations and has been carefully helming without taking any side of any major powers. Washington’s focus on free and fair election is important to maintain a stability in the greater Bay of Bengal neighborhood- an important feat in it’s IPS. Conversely, Bangladesh values economic partnership to sustain her ongoing upward trend. However, at the same time Bangladesh should be careful not to succumb to any pressure, a case in point when the Foreign Minister announced that the US proposed strategy is being vetted under the lens of economic opportunity.

On the domestic fore, arguably, the U.S has been advocating for a free and fair election, upholding democratic values, and condemning extra judicial excesses. However, continuous engagement between the two parties resulted helping to mitigate tensions and create a more positive atmosphere. The crux of Donald Lu’s visit is to reaffirm democratic ideals in state mechanism, rule based international system and Bangladesh to be part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Accordingly, Bangladesh has committed to hold a fair election and the recent decline of the controversial RAB’s extrajudicial excesses reported by Human Rights Watch as well as peaceful demonstrations of the opposition have been markedly praised by Donald Lu. From Bangladesh’s perspective rescinding of sanctions, reinstatement of GSP, and more support for Rohingya Refugees were reiterated. More importantly, Dhaka’s impartial foreign policy goals align with Washington’s interest in the South Asian region and it will be of American interest to consider Bangladesh as an important ally in the geopolitical chessboard of the Indo-Pacific region.  

However, the visit is also crucial for Donald Lu who is accused of meddling with the internal affairs of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. But, Donald Lu manifested his diplomatic acumen to “manage the fissures of the diplomatic ties’ and “highlight on the areas of convergence” in the recent visit. Evidently, the past year has been tumultuous for South Asian nations, following the collapse of Colombo, the Pakistani Economic Crisis and the revolving debt crisis around the region. Amongst her neighbors, Bangladesh has endured relatively steady political and economic pursuit. Therefore, US needs to formulate a comprehensive South Asian policy to accommodate the interests of the respective nations on its own merit.

Bangladesh’s relationship with the U.S is vital in both economic and political stance. Continued engagement and partnership between the two states is critical for the security of South Asia as well as Bangladesh’s ongoing economic prosperity. On a pragmatic tone, it would take more than just this one visit for Bangladesh to solve these complex geopolitical issues. For now, the visit has symbolized strengthening of U.S-Bangladesh relationship going forward by exonerating the mutual interests to diplomatically resolve pressing bilateral issues and elevation of continuous engagement.

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South Asia

Praiseworthy Development of RAB in the Last Year

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Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) image source: benarnews.org

On December 10th 2021, the United States of America (USA) announced sanctions against Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and its seven current and former officials on allegations of Human Rights violation. Such unilateral decisions of the US on the elite force surprised many. But Bangladesh chose to respond maturely through diplomatic communication. Since then, Bangladesh increased diplomatic engagement with the US, a method lauded by many as ‘prudent’ also.

Since the sanction, Bangladesh enhanced its effort to uphold the Human Rights situation in Bangladesh. RAB as an elite force also acknowledged the sanction and behaved in a more professional way. And it seems after one year, there are significant developments regarding both RAB and government policy. Foreign dignitaries and organizations are also lauding these developments.

Efforts from Bangladesh

After the announcement of the sanctions, Bangladesh immediately contacted the US diplomatic institutions to understand and assess the situation. As a part of the efforts, Bangladesh established Human Rights Cell in the Foreign Ministry under its United Nations wing.

Bangladesh also increased its diplomatic communications with the US, not necessarily because of the sanctions, but also due to growing geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific region, and commitment to deepen bilateral relations with the US. In the last two years, both countries undertook 18 bilateral visits of mid and high-level. Bangladesh sent 7 delegations to the US while the US sent 11 delegations including Donald Lu’s latest.

Both countries also hold the bilateral Partnership Dialogue and Security Dialogue in March and April of 2022. In the same year, they also celebrated 50 years of their anniversary. Bangladesh’s foreign minister also met his counterpart in April 2022.

While many rogue states such as North Korea, react to the US sanctions by projecting hard power or test-launching missile, Bangladesh resorted to diplomatic means to raise and provide an update about the agenda to its counterpart. Almost in all diplomatic meetings, Bangladesh raised its concern about the sanction. Bangladesh even gave a ‘non-paper’ dossier to Under-Secretary Victoria Nuland, when Nuland came to Bangladesh in March 2022.

Significant Developments

Since the US sanctions on 10th December 2021, the allegations of extrajudicial killings have gone down in Bangladesh. It has reached zero after one year. There were no new allegations of extrajudicial killing by RAB for the last 13 months. RAB’s name was not also mentioned in any other allegations or negative deeds. Therefore, RAB is maintaining a ‘clean record’ at least for last 13 months or so.

Apart from that, the Human Rights situation also improved in Bangladesh in the meantime as the government gave extra effort to project the situation to the international community. During Under Secretary Nuland’s visit in March, she also acknowledged that the situation has improved.

The US Assistant Secretary Donald Lu also acknowledged the further development regarding the allegations against RAB. Secretary Lu visited Bangladesh on January 14th and 15th. He also acknowledged the falling extrajudicial killing in Bangladesh. He also said that there was ‘tremendous progress’ in reducing extrajudicial killings after the US sanctions.

Home Minister Asaduzzaman Kamal also told the media that the US delegation is satisfied with RAB’s current activities. In another expert talk with The Business Standard, the Home Minister further said that the US also praised the actions of Bangladesh in combating militancy, terrorism, arson, and radicalism.

Apart from the US, global watchdogs are also acknowledging the fact. Human Rights Watch World Human Rights Report 2023 mentioned that there is a ‘drop-in abuse’ in Bangladesh (See Page 68).

Such transformation in the US perspective within only 13 months regarding a sanction is very unique considering the history of sanctions. Bangladesh’s diplomatic efforts and commitment to upholding Human Rights deserve praise in this regard. Till now Bangladesh is dealing with the issue prudently.

Lifting the sanctions in a diplomatic manner will require making it a national security interest for the USA. An elite force with a ‘clean record’ and its die-hard effort in curbing terrorism and militancy, fighting drug and human trafficking, and anti-piracy drive can easily draw US national security interest in this region. And RAB has the ability to become so. Considering the historic relations between the US and Bangladesh, the Sanctions are the only ‘strain’ in this bilateral relationship. Lastly, as there are praiseworthy developments, both countries are likely to pass beyond this issue in the near future if Bangladesh continues to maintain the positive trend.

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