A difficult transition

Published : Apr 27, 2002 00:00 IST

The court-mandated switch to compressed natural gas as fuel for buses in Delhi proceeds in fits and starts.

THE Central government and the Delhi State government came in for severe criticism from a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court on April 5 for not complying with its orders on the conversion of diesel-run buses in the capital to the compressed natural gas (CNG) mode. The Bench, comprising Chief Justice B.N. Kirpal and Justices Arijit Pasayat and K.G. Balakrishnan, ruled that its orders could not be nullified or altered by administrative decisions of the Central and State governments.

The decision to continue running diesel buses was in clear violation of the court's orders, it said, and, for the first time, imposed a fine on bus operators whose non-compliant vehicles remained on the road even after the January 31 deadline set by the court. It directed the Director of Transport, Delhi, to collect Rs.500 a bus a day for 30 days and Rs.1,000 a bus a day thereafter. Operators who had placed orders with manufacturers of CNG buses but had not taken delivery were given two weeks to do so or face cancellation of their permits.

The court also directed the Delhi government to phase out diesel buses at the rate of 800 a month, beginning from May 1 while turning down its plea to restrict the rate of phasing out to 200 buses a month, given the shortage of CNG. The request, the bench observed, was based on an imaginary situation of shortage.

Significantly, the court directed the Union government to ensure that after meeting the transport and fuel needs of Delhi there was enough CNG to be made available to nine other cities where air pollution levels were high. The cities are Agra, Lucknow, Jharia, Kanpur, Faridabad, Varanasi, Patna, Jodhpur and Pune. The Bench also ordered the Centre to give priority to the transport sector, including private vehicles, in Delhi and other high air-polluted cities, and eventually in the entire country, in the allocation of CNG. Only after that it could be allocated to industries, but even here priority would be given to the public sector undertakings and power projects.

The Bench was critical of the repeated pleas for extension of the deadline for conversion of buses in Delhi. "The Central government's intention was to clearly frustrate the orders passed by this court," it observed. "The manner in which it has sought to achieve this object is to try and discredit CNG as the proper fuel, and secondly, to represent to this court that CNG is in short supply and thirdly, delay the setting up of adequate dispensing stations."

The National Capital Territory of Delhi and the Union government had, under one pretext or the other, sought for more than one year extension of time to convert commercial vehicles to CNG mode, the Bench observed. While the "anxiety of the Delhi government, to give it the benefit of doubt, was to see that bus services in the city were not disrupted... the response of the Union of India in this regard is baffling, to say the least," it said.

THE comprehensive order, which covers almost all aspects of CNG and its supply, made clear that there was no shortage of the fuel and criticised the preference given by the Union government to meet the CNG requirements of industry disregarding environmental considerations. The Bench did not attach much importance to the Mashelkar Committee report. "It was naive of the Mashelkar Committee to expect that merely laying down fresh emission norms would be effective or sufficient to check or control vehicular emission," it noted. The Committee, it said, overlooked the fact that such norms had been in place for a long time and were regularly violated.

To explain the untenability of the Mashelkar report, the Bench evoked the "precautionary principle" of sustainable development elucidated in Vellore Citizens' Welfare Forum vs the Union of India. It held that unless an activity was proved to be environmentally benign in real and practical terms, it is to be presumed to be environmentally harmful. Emission and fuel norms had existed for over two decades and the state of the environment continued to be dismal. The government's role therefore could not be limited to specifying norms as this would amount to a clear abdication of its constitutional and statutory duty to protect and preserve the environment and therefore was in the "teeth of the precautionary principle".

On the supply aspect of CNG, the Bench observed that the Centre's plea was incorrect as the indigenous production was far in excess of what was supplied for the transport sector. An overwhelming quantity of CNG was going to industry and power projects and a very small fraction went to transport. Even if there was a shortage, the Bench observed, if crude oil could be imported and supplied to refineries for manufacture of petrol and diesel, there was no reason why CNG could not be imported. Indicating the bias towards industry, it pointed out that while industry bought natural gas at Rs.3.55 a kg, a commercial vehicle owner in Delhi had to pay Rs.13.11 for the same amount.

The Bench ordered Indraprastha Gas Limited to make available 16.1 lakh kg of CNG a day by June 30 to the transport sector and increase its supply as and when needed. It also directed IGL to prepare a scheme, with a time schedule, for supply of CNG to other polluted cities and provide the same to the court by May 9. The court gave the Central government the option to supply, in addition to CNG, liquefied petroleum gas or any other clean, non-adulterable fuel as recommended by the Bhure Lal Committee, as an alternative fuel.

Bus operators and their associations were up in arms at the court order. They had been penalised and also faced the prospect of their buses being phased out. They went on a two-day strike, during which all buses, barring a skeletal fleet run by the Delhi Transport Corporation, remained off the roads. The Delhi government directed the closure of all schools for two days but could do little to ease the plight of office-goers and commuters. Madan Lal Khurana and Sahib Singh Verma, members of Parliament from the Bharatiya Janata Party, declared their intentions to push for an ordinance on the use of multi-fuels. But the move failed, disappointing the bus operators.

The issue of conversion of transport buses to run on CNG has been hanging fire since 1986. Repeated extensions were sought and new deadlines set. At one stage, the very viability of CNG was questioned and ultra low sulphur diesel was discussed as an option. The Delhi government and the Central government kept blaming each other for the lack of progress in the matter. The former was held responsible for the tardy phasing out of diesel buses, while the latter was blamed for not ensuring a steady supply of CNG. The filling stations had long queues, and it took several hours for a refill.

Meanwhile, random accidents involving vehicles retrofitted with CNG kits were reported and all this was seen as a ploy by the rumoured "diesel lobby" to discredit CNG.

On September 23, 1986, the court first directed the Delhi government to file an affidavit detailing the steps taken in the city to control pollution, including vehicular emissions and noise. Several measures were taken subsequently, including the use of very low sulphur diesel and lead-free petrol, the fitting of catalytic converters, phasing out of grossly polluting old vehicles, the lowering of benzene content in petrol and the stipulation that new vehicles - petrol and diesel - meet the Euro-II standards by September 2000.

In the course of the proceedings, the Bhure Lal Committee was set up under the Environmental (Protection) Act, 1986. It recommended the phasing out of non-CNG buses and the conversion of diesel buses to the CNG mode. The Committee's report was accepted and on July 28, 1998, the court fixed the deadline for the switch-over to CNG.

The need for an alternative fuel to diesel had been articulated in at least three apex court orders - on October 21, 1994; March 28, 1995; and February 9, 1996. In its April 5, 2002 order the Supreme Court pointed out that much before the receipt of the Bhure Lal committee report, it had, in previous orders, referred to the conversion of government vehicles to CNG, the installation of CNG stations and provision of kits. In fact, in the 1994 order, the court had suggested that in highly polluted cities like Delhi and in other metros as well, government vehicles and vehicles of public sector undertakings, including public transport vehicles, could be equipped with CNG cylinders.

The Bench refuted the argument of the Central government that no other city in the world had introduced CNG buses on a scale as directed by it. The Bench agreed that while most industrialised cities in the world did not have large numbers of CNG-run buses, the share of natural gas-run buses was steadily growing worldwide.

At the moment, there are 3,727 CNG-run buses in Delhi and with the phasing out of an additional number of 6,338 diesel-run buses, the total of CNG-run buses on the roads would be 10,065. Bus manufacturers have contended that 1,500 chassis, which had been ordered, were ready but had not been taken delivery of. The manufacturers, mainly Ashok Leyland and Telco, stated that they were in a position to provide 800 buses a month and that if operators chose to buy new buses, then the entire fleet of diesel-run buses could be phased out within eight months.

Shyam Nath Gola, president of the Delhi Bus Ekta Manch and one of the main representatives of the bus operators, told Frontline that till date the supply of CNG was inadequate and vehicles had to wait for more than 24 hours. Of a total of 94 filling stations, there were only 18 "mother" filling stations, the rest were "daughter" stations that basically picked up CNG from the former. Gola said that not all the daughter stations were functioning and that the number of mother stations was grossly inadequate compared with some 462 diesel filling stations. Several areas, especially in East Delhi and West Delhi where the majority of commuters came from, did not have a single mother station. Amarjeet Singh Sehgal, president of the Delhi Contract Bus Association, echoed this view. He cautioned that buses might go off the roads again if, even after the conversion to the CNG mode, gas was not available owing to the limited infrastructure.

The infrastructure problems will now have to be worked out between the two governments. The onus of supply is on the Union government. The installation of more dispensing stations is high on the agenda and the Delhi government has given some relief to the bus operators by waiving sales tax on CNG. On May 9, Indraprastha Gas Limited has to explain to the apex court the steps it has taken to ensure the supply of CNG to the transport sector. The last word on the CNG conundrum has not been said as yet.

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