"Intelligent" adulteration

By Sunita Narain
Published: Sunday 31 March 2002

it could be seen as the best tribute the government could pay our colleague Anil Agarwal. At the hearing of the air pollution case in the Supreme Court when the report on fuel adulteration done by the Centre for Science and Environment (cse) was being discussed, the counsel for the Union government, Mukul Rohtagi, thundered. "The report should be rejected, because cse is not a 'technical body'. Only Anil Agarwal had some technical knowledge and now that he is not there, the organisation is not competent anymore."

Why do I call this a tribute? Because sitting in court, I realised that the counsel was stooping so low because we had hurt his client, and hurt it hard. Anil would have expected nothing less from us. Standing behind Rohatgi were two officials of the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas (mopng), Shivraj Singh and A P Ram -- both instrumental in the ministry's efforts to derail the use of compressed natural gas (cng) and to push for diesel. We had been their bugbear for long and now their desperation was showing.

This time the issue was adulteration. The court was concerned that gaseous fuels -- cng or lpg-- were not accepted because these could not be adulterated, while petrol or diesel could. The government denied this. Its affidavit maintained that "all samples tested for adulteration in Delhi met the specifications laid down by the Bureau of Indian Standards (bis)" and that the government had "ensured that the right quality of auto fuel was being dispensed in the city".

cse found otherwise. The court had asked the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (epca) to conduct an independent investigation. epca, in turn asked cse. The report -- based on surprise collections and testing of samples in the same laboratory mentioned in the government's affidavit -- found that over 28 per cent of the samples failed to meet the specifications laid down by the bis.

But the investigations found much more alarming things. cse purposely (and quietly) adulterated diesel with kerosene. The laboratory passed the sample adulterated with 20 per cent kerosene. The sample with 10 per cent adulteration also passed. But the sample with 15 per cent adulteration failed, in one parameter. Its sulphur level was found to be high -- understandable because sulphur content in kerosene is substantially higher than the diesel being supplied to Delhi. But then why did the sample adulterated with 20 per cent kerosene pass?

The report also found that sulphur levels in both diesel and petrol astonishingly went down as the fuel travelled from the refinery, to the depot and then to the retail outlet. At the refinery, in this case Mathura refinery, the sulphur levels ranged from 300 parts per million (ppm) to 400 ppm. But at Bijwasan -- the depot where the pipeline brought the oil from the refinery -- the sulphur content dropped to 200-300 ppm and then at retail outlet, further dropped to 100-300 ppm. Clearly, with no "desulphurisation" possible on route, something else was happening.

Could it be dilution with an adulterant? A definite possibility. The oil industry had no clear and convincing explanation. But as the tests only need the fuel to meet the standards -- in this case 500 ppm of sulphur -- not being able to explain does not matter. It is legal, so what if it could be adulterated.

In fact, the fuel specifications made adulteration a legal business, we found. The fuel specifications laid down by the bis allow for a range wide enough to allow for "intelligent" adulteration. Thus it is possible to adulterate carefully without violating the specifications. My colleagues, who worked on this report, calculated to their horror that it was possible to adulterate petrol with up to 20 per cent naphtha and still meet the bis specifications. And given the price difference, an outlet could earn a daily profit of Rs 32,000 if it substituted just 15 per cent naphtha in petrol.

Then key parameters are not regulated -- aromatics and olefins in petrol and polycyclic hydrocarbons in diesel. So what if this makes detecting adulteration impossible.

In reality, we found nobody is serious about detecting adulteration. The paraphernalia of tests and specifications have been laid down with the purpose of loosely monitoring fuel quality, not to check adulteration. Not even in the expensive laboratories specifically set up for this purpose. Why does this happen?

We have large numbers of technically competent people who are responsible for setting up this system. Did they not know that the system fails to do what it is supposedly designed for?

Is it simply that our bombastic scientific establishment has failed once again, in finding solutions to things that affect us in our daily lives.

Or is there more to this seeming lack of competence? Is there scientific "intelligence" behind the business of "intelligent" adulteration? Incompetence or corruption? Will we ever know for certain?

-- Sunita Narain

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