The Island of 27.02.2016 reported that the Deputy Minister, Transport and Civil Aviation, has told Parliament that "the issuance of vehicle emission certificates would be taken over by the Sri Lanka Transport Board Depots". The Deputy Minister has also said the two companies authorised to issue vehicle emission certificates (VEC) had earned almost Rs. 8.6 billion since 2008 when the programme was initiated, and they have paid the government only Rs. 0.89 billion, about 10%.
The Deputy Minister has not given any reason why the government was planning to transfer this service to the depots of the SLTB, though. He has not said whether there are any lapses in the programme or inadequacies for taking over this service from the two companies. Even if it is so, is SLTB the best organization to provide this service, knowing how it operates the public bus service for which it is given the mandate?
Today, when every little thing goes to the Cabinet of Ministers for approval before implementing, has this issue been taken up at the Cabinet, or is it the Deputy Minister’s own view? It may be recalled that the Finance Minister made a futile attempt at the last Budget Proposal to increase the fees levied for vehicle emission testing, which he had to withdraw because of public protests. If the government wants to collect more revenue from this programme, why not ask for a higher share from the companies?
Deputy Minister on SLTB performance
In an interview given to another daily, as reported in its issue of 30 September 2015, the Deputy Minister has admitted that "The Treasury has to pocket out Rs. 1 billion per month just to pay the salaries of these people (SLTB Staff). Apart from that we need Rs. 15 billion to pay EPF, ETF, gratuity and for tyres and spare parts. To get the SLTB back on track is not going to be easy". If the motive for handing over the issuing of VECs is for the SLTB to earn more revenue, the additional income generated from emission testing, which is about Rs. 1 billion annually, will be hardly sufficient to meet its annual commitments.
It is surprising that when so many private bus owners are operating their buses profitably, why the SLTB cannot do that. One option the government could consider is to hand over the entire SLTB to the private sector so that it will not be a burden on the taxpayer, having to dole out Rs. One billion monthly to pay the salaries of its staff. If the SLTB cannot be put on track as claimed by the Deputy Minister, isn’t this the only option?
Committee monitoring VEC programme
Though the testing of exhaust emissions and issuing of certificates is done by two private companies, the programme is monitored closely by the Motor Traffic Department and the Air Resources Management Unit of the Ministry of Environment, supported by a committee of several stakeholders. It sets the emission standards and the criteria for passing the tests. If there had been any shortcomings in the programme, necessary action would have been taken by this committee.
Under the circumstances, it is surprising why the Deputy Minister has made a unilateral decision to hand over the programme to the SLTB depots, which number only 116 island-wide. On the other hand, between the two companies they are operating 384 emission testing centres. Could the public expect a better service from SLTB if the service is handed over to it?
History of vehicle emission testing
It may be recalled that the vehicle emission testing programme was initiated by the Ministry of Environment as far back as 1994, when it imported 65 smoke meters for measuring the smoke level of diesel vehicle exhausts with a view to control air pollution caused by these emissions. These were subsequently handed over to the CEA who got them calibrated by CISIR prior to using them as required by regulations. In mid-1994, these meters were handed over to the Police for testing smoke emissions from diesel vehicles on the roadside. Selected police officers were given a special training by CISIR.
However, for various reasons, the programme was discontinued within a year or so and the meters were returned to CEA. In July 1995, the Ministry directed the CEA to hand them over to SLTB bus depots in the Colombo Metropolitan Area. Though some of the meters were handed over to the SLTB, this programme too did not last very long and was given up when the equipment started malfunctioning with nobody responsible for their maintenance.
Decision to get the private sector to issue VEC
The Ministries of Environment and Transport, in the meantime, held several rounds of discussions along with other stakeholders including Traffic Police, CEA, Measurement Units and Standards Department and CISIR, and decided to get the private sector involved in implementing the vehicle emission testing programme. The two companies were selected after inviting proposals in a transparent manner. By that time, regulations on vehicle emission standards had been gazetted and there was a need to have a system to implement these regulations.
Actually, the authorities had difficulty initially in convincing the private sector to undertake the emission testing programme as its viability was not ensured. According to the Deputy Minister’s statement itself, the two companies have been executing the programme satisfactorily during the last 7 years making a good profit. As such, there is no justification whatsoever to take the programme out from them and hand over to the SLTB, especially after its failure once in executing the programme.
Bring all vehicles under the VEC programme
There is one thing the Deputy Minister can do to reduce pollution caused by vehicle emissions. Currently, buses are exempted from going through the emission test. The Deputy Minister could purchase about 100 smoke-meters and hand them over to SLTB depots country-wide for in-house verification of smoke levels of buses, both SLTB and privately-owned, and make it mandatory for them also to comply with the standards.
Permitting high polluters to operate without any control, while getting the low emitters to control their emissions, will do little for improvement of air quality in the country, particularly in urban areas. Do the Police get their vehicles tested for emissions? If not, they also should be brought under the scheme.
Need to adopt the international system
Though the VEC programme has been moving satisfactorily as planned, there is also a need to revamp the entire programme. Currently, testing for emission levels of pollutants is carried out while the vehicle is stationary and expressing the results as percentages of each pollutant present in the exhaust. This is an outdated method not practised in most countries in the world, except perhaps those among the least developed.
The standard method in use today comprises the use of a dynamometer, where the driving wheels of the vehicle are mounted on rollers driven by a computer controlled system. The system can simulate the actual driving conditions with acceleration, steady motion and de-acceleration over a period of time. The entire volume of exhaust gases emitted during the test is collected and analysed in-situ, and the results are expressed as the weight of each pollutant emitted per kilometre run. This method is practised even in India.
At the beginning of the emission testing programme, the authorities did not want to go for this method because of the high cost of this testing facility compared to that of the present system. Now that the programme is operating successfully and the companies are able to recover their investment, the next logical step is to adopt the dynamometer system for emission testing, which is the accepted method internationally, today. With the revenue earned to-date, the two companies should be able to invest in the new system. If necessary, the government could grant some concessions on import duties and reductions of other taxes for importing necessary hardware.
Adoption of new standards
The authorities will have to draft new standards specifying new permissible limits applicable to each pollutant, in terms of gramme per kilometre (g/km) after consulting all stakeholders, and have them gazetted. The Deputy Minister could perhaps get some advice on this issue from the officials in the relevant organizations, both within his Ministry and outside. He could even go to Parliament again to inform the members of the need to go for the modern system of emission testing in keeping with the requirement of a middle-income country.
President to have the last say
If the government decides to hand over the VEC system to the SLTB, which is not in a position to manage even its own affairs, disregarding the above facts, it will certainly be a death-knell for the emission testing programme in Sri Lanka. If this happens, I wonder what the President will have to say about this, in his role as the Minister of Environment.