'We are just being cautious'

Print edition : April 14, 2001

Interview with Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit.

Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit explains her government's dilemma over the CNG issue, in this interview she gave T. K. Rajalakshmi.

RAJEEV BHATT

Is the perception that your government woke up only at the last minute with regard to the conversion of diesel vehicles to CNG mode correct?

There wasn't sufficient time to implement the court order as CNG buses are not manufactured here. Secondly, the gas itself is not available in adequate pressure or in an adequate number of places in Delhi. Delhi is the first city to be asked to go in entirely for CNG. Two years was too short a time even to get the technology, tried or untried. After all, it is an expensive bus. It costs about five or six lakh rupees more than the normal diesel bus. So the ordinary bus operator and the government have had to think twice, especially when you put large quantities of money and also when there are many question marks. When you buy 30,000 buses, there has to be the infrastructure - mechanics, service stations - but there is none for CNG. These services take years to build.

The Delhi government has been made a scapegoat as neither do we have the manufacturers in our hands nor do we have the gas. Yes, we had the money and we put in more since last year but even now till October we will be able to get only about 1,500 buses because that is the capacity. CNG buses are manufactured in Alwar and have to be sent to Pune, Jamshedpur or Mumbai for the chassis to be made and they have to be sent by railway wagons as there is no CNG available on the way. The whole process takes too long. There are questions about whether it is a safe technology, or whether it can withstand the 45oC heat of summer in Delhi, whether it can pick up speed as today it stops even at flyovers or slows down so miserably that one has to restart it, recharge it. The technology is uncertain, the gas is not available and the infrastructure is not ready. The economy of it all is uncertain. What is it that we are going in for, nobody has any idea.

Today they blame the Delhi government for not doing this, tomorrow they will blame us for throwing public funds and private operators' money without being sure (of the facts). Suppose two years later we have to dump them? We will have to be answerable. Then there are conflicting opinions between environmentalists and technologists. CNG may not result in the same kind of pollution like diesel, but it will bring another kind of pollution, whether it be a greenhouse gas effect or some carcinogenic emissions. Nowhere in the world in any city has CNG been tried fully. There are other clean fuels, so do that, we say. I am opening my viewpoint for the first time because we have been giving out these points and views to the Honourable Supreme Court and at that time I thought it would be wrong on my part to say it to the public. But I think the time has come now to say it.

The government had two years to look into these issues. Why weren't these points raised earlier?

We asked for one more year. The technology has to settle down. How can you force a private operator to pay five or six lakh of rupees more? There are some 50,000 trucks and other vehicles that ply through Delhi. They don't run on CNG, what will they do for fuel within the city? These buses that we get or convert will not be able to go out of town as there is no CNG outside Delhi. Many private operators hire out their vehicles out of the city for marriage parties or for trips or tours, now they will just be confined within the city. Before the BJP demitted office in 1999, its government placed an order for 1,800 diesel buses knowing that CNG would have to be used. There has to be some explanation for this.

Your government is now talking about Ultra Low Sulphur Diesel (ULSD). Why did you not raise this point earlier?

There is a sharp divide among environmentalists themselves, one of them recommending CNG and the other going in for ULSD. A year ago, the sulphur content had come down to .005 while the ideal sulphur content should be .001 per cent. That is currently not available.

We are being accused that we did not tell the Central government about our CNG requirements. It is not true. Our first meeting was held when Suresh Prabhu was the Environment Minister. The Bhure Lal Committee was involved, and so were other Ministries. Our Transport Minister had more meetings with (Union Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas) Ram Naik. I had written two or three letters to the Petroleum Ministry requesting that gas supply be ensured. We had meetings with Indraprastha Gas Limited, and people from various Ministries. We can't afford not to have gas. You have seen these huge queues of scooters and cars standing for hours. Then the stations are not equitably distributed all over Delhi. They are concentrated in South Delhi. How do you expect the three-wheeler driver or the bus driver to travel huge distances for gas? There are teething problems over technology. Its safety is not assured, its economic viability is not assured and above all its environmental suitability is questionable.

To what extent is the Central government to blame for this crisis?

The Central government, the Union Ministry, kept on telling us things that were not true. At no point did they say they won't give us gas. In September 1999, they started their stations and at the first meeting I had with Prabhu in January he said we have got it all on line, it will be ready. Came September 2000, things were still not ready. Today it is still not ready. What do we do? Even at the existing stations, the pressure is not good: it takes 30 to 40 minutes to fill a bus.

But overall, there is a perception that your government mismanaged things.

How do you comply with orders that are impossible to comply with? The ground realities are different. Eventually we are grateful to the court for giving us the 14 days we asked for to issue the permits. But the crisis is not over. I am not sure how many buses will be available on September 30 or whether gas will be available. Today I am not confident that the September 30 deadline will be met. The conversion is also not a success: it is a hit-and-run story so far. Some people asked why we couldn't get the technology from abroad. We placed advertisements, and groups came from Italy, Australia, the United States, and none of them (could handle) the kind of temperatures that we have -45oC for about two months. Yesterday there was an incident involving a three-wheeler whose cylinder burst and six people were injured. Now they say the nozzle and the receptacle are not matching. Because it is a new technology, there is not enough research on this. Many will blame me for selling sub-standard stuff. Spurious material is bound to come up as there is not enough of the genuine stuff. I do not intend to defy anybody, but it is time to bring these realities to the fore.

Neither have the end emission norms for CNG been specified. Suppose these buses don't run, what happens then? These are questions that need answers. We are going to set up an Environmental Protection Board to look into these issues.

Please don't blame my government for being slack or inefficient. We are just being cautious.

Your apparently defiant statements in the Legislative Assembly put you almost at the risk of contempt of court.

There was no intention to defy the court. I said in the legislature that the Cabinet has taken a decision keeping the public's difficulties in view and we are ready to face any punishment for that. The court then gave us 14 days for permits. There was this accusation that we were not working. We were working right through the holidays. There were women employees who have not had a single holiday but were working through and through to issue these special permits. We were being neither defiant nor reluctant at any stage.

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