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In Mumbai, CNG or nothing

Print edition : Apr 27, 2002 T+T-

THE Bombay High Court order stating that all 137-D diesel-engine Premier model taxis in Mumbai be either phased out or converted to compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) by May 31, opened a can of worms that has, among other things, exposed the lack of infrastructure to facilitate the change.

The order states that by April 30 all diesel taxis will have to go off the road and by May 31 their registration should be cancelled if they have not been converted to CNG mode. The Mumbai Taximen's Union called the deadline "impossible and impractical". While lauding the move towards a cleaner environment, J.P. Cama, who represents the taximen in court, said, "The immediate implication of the order is that you are taking away livelihoods without providing any alternatives."

Taxis provide direct employment to about 1.5 lakh people and indirect employment to five lakh people in Mumbai. Of around 55,000 taxis registered in Greater Mumbai, about 15,000 run on diesel. Only around 500 of these have been converted to CNG mode. The reasons for this are many. The CNG kit cannot be retrofitted on to a diesel engine. So the conversion will involve replacing the diesel engine with a petrol one and attaching the CNG kit to it. The total cost of this is Rs.60,000. There are not enough petrol engines to meet the demand and Premier Automobiles Ltd, the makers of Premier Padmini, which constitutes the majority of Mumbai's taxis, exists only on paper. Taximen are thus forced to depend on the secondhand market.

"Naturally it is not possible to find 15,000 secondhand petrol engines so soon," said A.L. Quadros, general secretary of the Mumbai Taximen's Union. At a popular secondhand market in Mumbai, petrol engines are available though not in the required numbers. Initially such purchases were not encouraged because in most cases the engines lacked documents that could establish their authenticity. This problem was overcome with the court agreeing that it was enough that the taximen filed affidavits stating the place of purchase of the engines.

Other hurdles, however, remain. The most time-consuming one among them is retrofitting. "The diesel engine has to be removed, the new petrol engine has to be matched and then tested," said Quadros. At the rate of three cars a day, the 16 authorised retrofitting stations in the city can convert only 48 cars a day. With approximately 25 working days a month, this works out to 1,200 cars a month. That still leaves more than 13,000 taxis to be converted.

While acknowledging the health and environmental concerns arising from automobile emissions, Quadros called for support to the problems of taximen. They have to line up, sometimes for as long as six hours, for a refill at the CNG stations. There are only 23 CNG stations to service the 15,000 CNG taxis (most of the petrol taxis have already been converted to CNG) in the city. The union wants the number to be doubled. Mahanagar Gas Limited has said that it has the capacity to fulfil the demand. However, while the taximen are being urged to convert to CNG, corresponding pressure is not exerted on the administration to provide more filling stations.

Most of the refilling stations are located in the suburbs whereas the majority of the taxis ply in the island city. One cylinder lasts 60 to 70 km, and on an average a taxi covers about 90 km a day. The cylinder has to be refilled every day, and if the filling pressure is low it takes longer to fill.

Many taxi-owners are still paying off loans they took to purchase their vehicles, making it impossible for them to handle the extra burden of Rs.60,000 required for the conversion to CNG. Besides, said Quadros, there were not enough CNG kits available. The union has asked the government to make these easily available and provide financial assistance to taxi-owners.