Commuters' crisis

Print edition : April 14, 2001

As the Delhi State government takes the rap for having failed to meet a Supreme Court-mandated deadline to ensure that the entire diesel-run bus fleet of the capital is switched to compressed natural gas mode, the public is caught in the crossfire.

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI V. VENKATESAN in New Delhi

THE public transport system in the national capital has never been anything to boast about, but its utter collapse in the wake of a Supreme Court order regarding vehicular pollution left Delhi in a state of disarray in the first week of April. The last occasion when the city got similarly paralysed was in the wake of the closure of polluting industries and consequent labour unrest (Frontline, December 22, 2000). The latest confusion was the outcome of the non-implementation of a Supreme Court order of July 1998 directing the conversion of the entire diesel-run bus fleet of the capital into the Compressed Natural Gas mode by March 31, 2001. This order covered all commercial vehicles including autorickshaws and taxis.

At Moti Nagar, west Delhi, last fortnight, after non-CNG vehicles went off the road following the Supreme Court order.-SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

The Delhi government led by the Congress(I), the Union government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party and, most important, the commuters, were unprepared for this eventuality. While the Delhi government blamed the Central government and the Petroleum Ministry for an inadequate number of filling stations and gas supply, the Petroleum Minister averred that there was no shortage and that the Delhi government had been lax in implementing the apex court order. At another level, the mess got transformed into a farce as environmental groups battled over the efficacy of CNG as a fuel. The "CNG lobby" led by the Green activists was ranged against a "diesel lobby" led by the private transporters.

As the deadline approached it was evident that very few public transport vehicles had been converted or were in the process of being converted into CNG mode. The first few days of April proved to be a nightmare for the commuters who had to make do with the limited fleet of some 800 Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) buses and a few three-wheelers which had CNG fittings. Out of a total fleet of 12,000 to 14,000 buses, the DTC has some 2,000 while the rest are managed by private operators, who had not complied with the court order.

Chaos led to confusion and there was violence on the streets. Six buses, most of them belonging to the DTC, were torched in Badarpur on the outskirts of the capital. Commuters travelled atop buses, many hung out precariously from the exit points and working women, as always, bore the brunt. The three-wheelers that plied charged exorbitant rates. School and college goers suffered.

THE general comment was that the Supreme Court, in its zeal, had not shown enough sensitivity to the plight of the commuters. On March 26, the court declined to entertain an application from the Delhi government and the parties concerned seeking an extension of the deadline.

The Bench, comprising Chief Justice A.S. Anand, Justice B.N. Kirpal and Justice V.N. Khare, said granting a "blanket extension" of deadline "would amount to putting a premium on the lapses and inaction of the administration and the private transport operators".

The Bench, however, allowed certain relaxations and exemptions to mitigate the sufferings of commuters in general and school-going children in particular, by granting a limited extension of the deadline till September 30, 2001 in certain specified cases. Commercial vehicles shall be permitted to ply from April 1 to September 30 if they carry and display on the windscreen a permit or authorisation signed by the Principal Secretary for Transport in the Delhi administration. To be eligible for this permit, the vehicle owner should have placed a firm order for conversion to CNG or other clean fuel mode, and furnish an affidavit in the Supreme Court on or before March 31, 2001 on the basis of which the official was expected to issue permits and authorisations.

While the Supreme Court staff sat extra hours on March 30 and 31 to complete the filing of affidavits by vehicle owners, the Delhi government wanted a limited extension of time to enable it to complete the issue of permits. On March 30, it also requested the Bench, through Additional Solicitor-General Kirit Raval, to hold a special sitting to consider a short extension of time.

Even though the Delhi government is partly to blame for its inaction in complying with the court's July 1998 order, the court gave its order on relaxations only on March 26, leaving little time to complete the formalities. Raval underlined a genuine problem faced by the Delhi administration: it was not possible for one individual - the Transport Commissioner - to issue all the permits, and requested that two other officers be permitted to issue such permits. Chief Justice Anand said a request had to be made by the official himself for the purpose, and refused to heed Raval's request.

Even though Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit was initially hopeful of meeting the September 30 deadline, she joined the chorus of public protest against the court order, and declared that her government was ready to face punishment for contempt of court, but that it would not allow the citizens of Delhi to suffer. On April 3, the government decided to allow all buses possessing booking receipts for CNG conversion and photocopies of affidavits filed in the court to ply without the mandatory special permits until April 15. Clearly overwhelmed by the massive exercise involved, she made it clear in the Delhi Assembly that the government would not be in a position to meet the September 30 deadline.

Sheila Dixit said that the court was not aware of the ground realities prevailing in the capital, and that it was time it took a lenient view of the situation in view of the serious law and order problem that had arisen. She also said the court was being irrational and was taking an indifferent view, by refusing to listen to the government's problems.

On the morning of April 3, when Raval moved the Bench to extend the deadline by three or four days, the court commented: "If the Apex Court Registry had worked till midnight for the last three days to receive 27,442 applications from bus and three-wheeler operators, and 15,000 applications had been sorted out, why could not the Delhi government complete its work expeditiously?"

For the Delhi government, however, it was a new experience to examine the papers, and issue permits within the stipulated time. The sheer volume of work necessitated more time. It was only on April 5 that the court allowed the government to issue provisional permits until April 14 to bus and three-wheeler operators who had filed affidavits.

THE court meanwhile directed the Delhi Chief Secretary to file an affidavit on the reported statements of the Chief Minister and the Transport Minister on the issue. Expressing his anguish over Dixit's remarks, Chief Justice Anand said, "I feel so hurt by the statements. They are opening a war on the judiciary. The Delhi administration is not above the law." The Bench observed that "sympathy for the commuters is being used by the Delhi Government to cover up its administrative lapses and lack of governance." Asked by the Bench whether the government's defiant stand amounted to a breakdown of constitutional machinery, Solicitor-General Harish Salve warned that if this attitude persisted, then the Centre had no option but to displace the government.

Had the court been quick to respond to the Delhi government's request for extension of deadline in granting valid permits to transporters, the unfortunate incidents in the capital from April 2 to April 4 could have been avoided. While the Delhi government is responsible to an extent for not having speeded up the process of conversion, the Central government was equally responsible, if not more, for the mess. The provision of CNG, laying of gas pipelines as well as setting up of "mother" and "daughter" stations for buses and other vehicles have been grossly inadequate. ("Mother" feeders are those that cater to buses and "daughter" feeders are those that cater to smaller vehicles.)

In an attempt to redeem itself in the eyes of an angry public, the government issued an advertisement clarifying that it had assumed office only in December 1998 and that the previous BJP government had placed orders for some 1,300 urban diesel buses and 350 ordinary diesel buses, subsequent to the court orders of July 28, 1998. The government had cancelled this order. The DTC had placed orders for 2,000 new CNG chassis or buses in June and November 2000 and separate orders had been placed for the conversion of diesel-run buses.

The Dixit government charged a Central government undertaking, Indraprastha Gas Ltd, with not being able to provide an assured supply of CNG and not laying gas supply pipelines which as of now exist only in south Delhi. Moreover, the CNG mother and online stations for buses and outlets for autos and taxis were grossly inadequate, alleged the Delhi government.

Ram Naik, Union Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas, blamed the Delhi government for the mess. He held that neither Sheila Dixit nor Parvez Hashmi, the Transport Minister, had interacted with the Union Ministry or informed the Ministry about the demand requirements. Hashmi rebutted the charge by showing a copy of the minutes of a meeting held between the State Transport Ministry and the Petroleum Minister on August 18, 2000 when a requisition was made for adequate supply of CNG to the DTC and for LPG being made available as an alternative fuel. But, it is evident that no time-frame or commitments were made or extracted from either side and that follow-up was negligible. The private transporters, perceived as the main culprits in the matter, are a perplexed lot. The owners have had to spend huge amounts of money to book CNG vehicle chassis or even to get CNG kits. One company, Nugas Technolo-gies, has the monopoly of body fabrication and supply of CNG kits and chassis. The cost of a bus with a new CNG system, excluding 12 per cent local taxes, is Rs.13.10 lakhs. (A diesel bus costs Rs.7.5 lakhs.) The cost of conversion from a diesel to CNG system is Rs.4.5 lakhs, excluding 8 per cent local tax.

According to Jaswant Singh Arora, president of the Federation of the Delhi Transport Unions Congress, both the governments were to blame for the crisis. The Central government was not able to provide gas even for those vehicles in the CNG. Each taxi or autorickshaw driver had to spend two to three hours to get his tank filled. The Federation had estimated that some 250 filling stations would be needed as against 68 now. He felt that a real crisis would arise when, after six months, all vehicles will be CNG-run.

The president of the Private Operators Bus Welfare Association, Himmat Singh, said the actual comparison should be made between CNG and ultra low sulphur diesel (ULSD). A study by a Tata Energy Research Institute had pointed out the relative advantages of ULSD over CNG. Worldwide, CNG buses accounted for only an insignificant share of city fleets. Himmat Singh said that ULSD was a hundred times cleaner than "dirty diesel". Himmat Singh said that the increased costs for the transporters would eventually be passed on to the commuters. He said the previous BJP government had told the court that CNG was a better option than ordinary diesel and the court was not told about other options.

RAJEEV DHAVAN, advocate and counsel for the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), holds the Supreme Court responsible for the chaos in Delhi. Criticising the court for converting its registry into a Regional Transport Office, he said certifying the applications for conversion was basically an administrative job which could have been better handled by senior officers of the Delhi government. The court, it appears, stepped in to ensure authenticity in the process, but it also exposed its lack of trust in an elected government. With the Supreme Court registry receiving affidavits until the night of March 31, how could the government have issued the permits at the same time, he said.

Those critical of the Delhi government's role say it had not offered any reasons for going back on the recommendations of the Bhure Lal Committee, which were accepted by all parties and was the basis for the Supreme Court's 1998 judgment. For the government to question now the wisdom of conversion to CNG or the deadline of March 2001, it is suggested, is certainly an afterthought. The Bhure Lal Committee was a statutory committee appointed under Section 3(5) of the Environment Protection Act, 1986.

However, the debate on the effectiveness of CNG is far from over. The Supreme Court Bench's March 26, 2001 order is proof enough. The Bench said: "It was contended before us that low sulphur diesel should be regarded as a clean fuel and buses be permitted to run on that. It was submitted that in some other countries ULSD, which has sulphur content of not more than 0.001 per cent, is now available. We direct the Bhure Lal Committee to examine this question and permit the parties to submit their written representations to the committee in that behalf." The committee was asked to submit a report within a month as to which fuel can be regarded as clean.

Transporters are also not clear about the reference to the Bhure Lal Committee. Himmat Singh said the Committee must include a technical person and a member from the public so that the transporters' point of view could be understood.

A CSE spokesperson suggested that the Supreme Court's directive to the Bhure Lal Committee to examine the ULSD issue is only in the context of inter-State buses and transit vehicles for which switch-over to CNG would be a problem in view of its non-availability outside Delhi. But the non-mention of inter-State buses in the court's order makes one wonder whether the Bench was moved by the demand for a complete rethink on the issue and examine the available options.

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