When the world’s biggest car maker is found cheating on emission data, it’s bound to send shock waves all around. German auto company Volkswagen has admitted that some 11 million diesel cars it sold worldwide had software that lowered the emissions in test conditions, but on road the emissions went up manifold. While some narrowly consider it as the environment story of the year, the exposé will have huge financial repercussions for the company and the future of diesel cars. Already shares of Volkswagen have crashed by 30%, heads have started to roll and the company claims to have set aside €6.5 billion (around 47,515 crore today) to pay for “necessary service measures and other efforts to win back the trust of our customers".

The US watchdog, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which first opened investigations in 2014 against Volkswagen, may now fine the company up to $37,500 (around 25 lakh today) for each vehicle, adding up to a maximum fine of about $18 billion.

How did the Volkswagen scandal become so big? It was because of the efforts of two transport campaigners John German and Peter Mock who refused to take the data at face value, uncovering one of the biggest corporate scandals of our times. All that the automotive engineers did was to check the cars’ emissions on road than just go by laboratory results. Working with researchers at West Virginia University, they tested Volkswagen’s diesel cars for emissions while driving from San Diego to Seattle.

Here’s why this is more than just a corporate scandal. Nitrogen oxide emissions from vehicles have been linked to increased asthma attacks and other respiratory illnesses—these emissions from Volkswagen cars exceeded the US standards by up to 35 times, John German and his team discovered. More than the US, it’s in Europe where this scandal will have a greater impact. Diesel engine vehicles are more popular in Europe, while in the US they form only 1-2% of the market share.

India, as a country that hosts some of the most polluted cities in the world, has much to learn from the Volkswagen story. What the story has taught us is that we need a regulator with a conscience that works for the environment. The Indian environment regulatory system functions at different levels, from the coast to the forest to the state pollution control boards there is an exhaustive set of laws that work to protect our air, water and forests. And yet despite such exhaustive laws, authorities and regulators, 99.9% of all projects are awarded related clearances. The role of the environment ministry is thus confined to clearances rather than playing the critical role of a watchdog.

We need a proactive regulator that measures pollution and fines polluters—a role that should have been played by the national and state pollution control boards. Yet, most don’t have heads, and others are understaffed or overworked. What should be noted is that since the Volkswagen story broke, one hasn’t heard a single voice in the US saying auto companies should be allowed to pollute as it hinders growth, an argument offered repeatedly against any effort to regulate polluters in India. Try asking any Indian company to curb their pollution levels, or confine their activities away from a forest and you will be labelled as anti-development or worse still, anti-national, by the Intelligence Bureau.

While EPA is threatening action, I am yet to see the regulators in India shut down any company for polluting our air or water. What we also need are watchdogs that can challenge the data put out by polluting companies. In India, this role seems to be performed by people labelled as activists, who are never taken seriously by policymakers or even the media.

As India gets ready for that big climate summit in Paris in December, let’s look at cleaning up our own air. If we wish to emulate the developed world for its growth model, let’s not forget how they got here, by pounding the environment with dirty polluting gases. The Volkswagen story is a wake-up call to businesses that they can no longer play second fiddle to the environment. That’s the lesson we need to remember in India.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of the book Green Wars: Dispatches From A Vanishing World.

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