Gas distress

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Thursday 11 June 2015

While all those orders of the Supreme Court (sc) directed towards the corporate sector - public or private - have largely resulted in action, orders to the government - state or central - have usually resulted in total chaos. In April 1999, when the sc gave the auto industry just about two months to move its engines to Euro i and about 11 months to move to Euro ii , the industry met the deadlines. Similarly, the petroleum industry has repeatedly improved petrol and diesel quality as per sc orders. The little improvement that we already see in air quality in Delhi is partly because of this. In 1998, diesel contained as much as 10,000 parts per million (ppm) of sulphur but today it is down to 500 ppm. The key problem is that both the state and Central government had no political will to implement the sc order on cng .

Dealing with the order, made 31 months ago, was quite an easy task if only a few key steps were taken. Firstly, as the matter involves the Delhi government and the Petroleum, Surface Transport and Environment ministries of the Central government, a coordination committee should have been set up to ensure smooth implementation. Both Sheila Dikshit, chief minister of the Delhi, and prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee should have worked together to ensure that such a mechanism was established. But each agency worked out of sync with the other.

Secondly, as the management of the process of conversion required technical competence on auto emissions, technology and health effects and as generalist bureaucrats have no understanding of these matters, a technical team should have been put in place to advise the government. In the absence of this advice, the Delhi government has remained consistently confused and has allowed every vested interest to take it for a ride. Both Lt Governor Vijai Kapoor and transport minister Pervez Hashmi have repeatedly made statements questioning the viability of cng on the basis of some paper or the other sent to them by various interest groups including anonymous sources. If such expertise was not available within India, the Delhi government could have even obtained the services of some foreign experts -- just as it commissioned a British consultant to prepare a study on industrial relocation with foreign aid. Even environment minister T R Baalu could have set up such a technical committee but did nothing of the sort. As a result, there has been confusion galore. Delhi government's positions have been exactly the same as those of auto majors who do not wish to see a changeover to cng . While Hashmi and Dikshit have repeatedly harped on cng technology being experimental in their public statements. On the other hand, on the day Sheila Dikshit was in court, the government lawyer accepted that cng technology is not experimental and the government was committed to the task.

Delhi government's confusion gave a clear signal that it was not serious about the Court's order. Allowing thousands of diesel buses to come on to the roads even weeks before the Supreme Court deadline shows that the government never wanted to implement the order and fervently hoped that the threat of a crisis, which it did everything in its ability to precipitate, would force the Court to back down. Unfortunately, for the Delhi government, the Court did not.

The third critical issue was finance. It was clear from the start that this transformation would need investments to be made by very small bus, taxi and auto operators. Three steps could have been taken to help these operators. Firstly, every effort should have been made to bring in as many manufacturers and conversion agents in India and abroad so that there was effective competition. But no advertisement was taken out in international newspapers and rules were set in a way that companies could not follow easily, thus ensuring that many companies could not participate. The result is market monopoly and high prices.

Hashmi keeps harping that such a big effort to convert to cng has not been made elsewhere. But he did not try to turn this to the city's advantage. The government could have easily pooled all the orders of the Delhi Transport Corporation and private transporters and then made the companies compete thus ensuring quality and low cost. But by letting the one-two bus and auto operators negotiate separately with the companies, Hashmi left them to the mercy of the wolves in the market. Not surprisingly, there have even been public allegations that this was deliberately manipulated for pecuniary reasons. A few years ago, several European city authorities, across different countries, pooled their orders to buy zero-emission buses for use in historic city centres to avoid pollution and got a big discount. If cities across nations can pool their order why couldn't we do it in one city? Poor transport operators could have been helped even further. Though Delhi is the richest state of India, it has a diesel price lower than other metros. An additional sales tax of Re 1 in 1999 and 2000 would have fetched about Rs. 300 crore. This sum is so large that the government could have even given away some 3,000 retrofitted buses free. It is clear that neither the Delhi government nor the Central government had any respect for the court order nor any desire to implement it.

-- Anil Agarwal

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