If you've been blaming the pollution and the gas guzzling of your vehicle on Nepal's infamous adulterated fuel, maybe it's time to look under your hood instead. Motor vehicle mechanics in Nepal love to hold forth on the ills of adulteration. They're right, to an extent, and vehicular pollution is indeed one of the main contributors to the Kathmandu Valley's polluted air, but what most vehicle-owners don't realise is just how important the state of their engine is. That's the message that the Vehicle Anti Pollution Program (VAPP), and the Tribhuvan University Department of Mechanical Engineering are trying to spread.
Almost 30 percent of the 136,000 vehicles tested between June 1996 - May 2000 failed the tailpipe emission tests. In a recent random monitoring of tailpipe emissions by the Valley Traffic Police in Pulchowk 38 of the 47 vehicles checked flunked the test. Kathmandu has at least 200,000 vehicles on the roads everyday. You do the math.
The VAPP, a training program initiated by DANIDA's Environment Sector Programme Support (ESPS) to reduce vehicular pollution, focuses on training vehicle mechanics on the maintenance of EURO-1 emission standard vehicles, all of which use computers to control ignition, emission and fuel systems. All well and good, you say, but most mechanics here don't know how this works, and how such a delicately calibrated system can be thrown out of whack if you try to tune the engine as if it were one of the old sort.
The Ministry of Population and Environment (MOPE) started insisting on EURO-1 certification for all cars imported after January 2000 to reduce air pollution in the Valley. But that hasn't been strictly enforced, and neither have other pollution-control regulations been implemented, such as taking all vehicles older than 20 years off the streets, has been slipshod, and even the new vehicles have been poorly maintained. This means that, even though the brick kilns on the outskirts of the city have been shut down, the Valley's air remains pretty vile.
But it seems as if we can all do our bit to clean up the air and do less damage to our respiratory systems. "Most of the pollution from vehicles can be avoided. It's simply a question of proper adjustment of the engines," says John Grunwald, a technical advisor to VAPP from Denmark. According to Grunwald, a veteran of the European automobile industry, one of the main reasons for the inefficiency of vehicles here, and the remarkable pollution they cause, is largely due to mechanics and owners tampering with the fuel injection in order to get a better mileage. "When you tamper with the fuel injection [in the course of a normal servicing], and we see that in the engines of vehicles we get in off the street, there is less oxygen to burn the fuel. This means not just a waste of money, but a lot more black smoke, which is a big health risk to Valley residents. What we need to focus on is getting vehicles here to perform better," he says.
That's what the VAPP is teaching mechanics as well as trainers from the local schools, for free.
VAPP's training centre has an engine workshop with specimen engines, and has been working with mechanics from car dealers including Sipradi, Hyundai, and Toyota, and also inspectors and officials from the Department of Transport, and the Valley Traffic Police. The personnel are trained on the reasons for different kinds of engine problems, and how they impact tailpipe emission. The program also offers ad-hoc courses in cooperation with interest groups, and awareness courses for the likes of journalists and students interested in the mechanics of vehicles. They're also helping plan courses in automobile electronics and mechanics with instructors from technical colleges. Ten participants from major car dealers, several officers from the Valley Traffic Police, and the Department of Transport have already completed several courses. Another dozen will complete their training course soon.
But a majority of the over 200,000 vehicles plying the streets of the Valley run on the pre-EURO-1 system, and VAPP still needs to reach out to the garage mechanics who deal with these vehicles. If they, and owners with a DIY complex can be taught to stop tinkering with the engines, we can yet hope that Kathmandu won't be up there with New Delhi, Mexico City and Beijing.
Of course, that is far from all. The other side of the story however is that although MOPE put a ban on more than 20 year old vehicles as well as made a regulation only allowing EURO-1 standard vehicles to be registered none of these decisions have actually been implemented. The backlash from transport entrepreneurs last year seems to have killed the matter. "The government has not effectively implemented any of its decisions on the transport sector made since 1996," says Bimal Aryal of the Martin Chautari anti-pollution public interest group. As long as the stalemate continues, it is perhaps citizens who have greater responsibility in cleaning up their air.