I read today that the government is considering exempting the import duty on used cooking oil. The idea is to make bio-diesel out of this which, in turn, could be used as an alternative fuel. While the idea and intention seems good on the face of it, this creates some uncomfortable problems. I’m not sure if the government has thought through the implications of this measure.
We, in India at least, are known for multiple uses of the same cooking oil. The oil which was used to fry banana chips yesterday afternoon would be used again to make aloo parathas today. In a country known for high consumption of cooking oil, it is quite natural on the part of the consumers to save on fresh oil. All we want to do is eat, eat and eat and not worry about the oil used for cooking. The flip side of this frugality is the increased health concerns. Re-using cooking oil is a disaster waiting to happen. The dangers to the human body range from increased cholesterol levels and acidity to increase in carcinogenic levels leading to cancer. One could say educating the consumer to refrain from re-using cooking oil could be the solution. That is easier said than done in a country where people are not good listeners. Moreover, there is a large proportion of rural folk who resort to this – it has been a way of life for them and they are likely to look at you with absurdity than glee if you tried to talk them out of it.
Now, if the government fully exempts used cooking oil from import duty, it will mean that people can import it much more cheaply. A glut of such used cooking oil in the country might result in such oils being sold in the guise of normal ones, putting the consumer at further peril. There is no guarantee that all the used cooking oil coming into India will be utilized to make bio-diesel. We will have to assume that some proportion of this will be diverted to be sold as fresh cooking oil. There could be techniques to make used cooking oil appear like fresh oil. I don’t know, but unscrupulous people always find the means to further their trade. This just happens to be one of the ways and God only knows how many methods are available to make some nasty bucks out of this!
If such a thing were to happen, it will only further deteriorate the health situation in India. Alternative fuel for vehicles is a good idea, but should it come at the cost of the health of the citizens of the country? What is the whole point of having vehicles with alternative fuel if there are no people to drive? A few million rupees saved on pollution will be cancelled by the high millions that the government will need to cough up on health expenditure. I’m not sure if the Transport Minister discussed with the Health Minister before coming out with this consideration (not that anything material could come about if such a thing transpired, but just wishful thinking on my part!).
There should be stringent controls on the utilization of used cooking oil imported into India. The government should impose a higher sales tax on used cooking oil to negate any price advantage triggered by exemption of import duty. I wouldn’t mind licensing the domestic sale of this considering the seriousness of the issues involved for all concerned. It could also consider a drive against re-use of cooking oil and either by itself or in partnership with the private sector, buy the used cooking oils from households, hotels and restaurants, clubs, schools, offices etc.. I believe such a measure would even lead to a reduced cost of production of bio-diesel which in turn could benefit the alternative fuel industry. I’m no expert on this, but really hope the government does not leave its citizens looking at massive health bills!