Dirty fuel

CSE's Clean Air campaigners ANUMITA ROYCHOWDHURY and CHIRAG SHAH expose the dirty, intelligent and systematic business of fuel adulteration:

The problem: Oil companies refuse to take ultimate responsibility for the quality of the fuel they sell. The government is averse to design tests that detect adulteration accurately. The penalty for adulteration is weaker than ever before. Fuel quality standards remain so lax that adulterated fuels easily pass the test. Warped pricing entices greed; policy legalises it. Adulteration is nothing but state-sponsored crime.

The result: Damaged vehicles. Increased emissions. Deadly air in cities. The gain from small improvements in vehicle technology is lost. The hope to leapfrog to ever-cleaner technology is quashed.

The answer: Make technology roadmap even more aggressive, to beat pollution as well as adulteration. The corrosive impact of adulteration on new technology will whip up public anger -- as it already is beginning to. And that will force the government and the oil companies to own up, and act

Published: Saturday 15 November 2003

Dirty fuel

-- When Faridabad resident Rajendra Dhankar's eight-month-old Santro began to belch white smoke like a run-down truck, he rushed to the vehicle's manufacturer, Hyundai. What had caused the engine to so wheeze was heavily adulterated fuel. The company replaced the piston and the ring. Dhankar's car was as good as new again. But even as he swore to henceforth buy petrol only from Delhi (Faridabad is a satellite town of Delhi), Hyundai hit the panic button.

Since the beginning of 2003, it had received 70-80 customer complaints from buyers of new vehicles in Faridabad. A pattern had begun to emerge: premature engine failure, before the warranty period expired. "We were shocked," says V D Bhasin, vice president, Hyundai. "Complaints were largely with the technology we introduced recently -- common rail direct injection in diesel cars and multifuel injection systems in the petrol cars. We noticed faster wear and tear, and deterioration in the engine. Even the oil consumption had shot up."

It then transpired that competitors Maruti Udyog Ltd were in a worse fix: 150-200 similar complaints. What was with the fuel being poured into these cars? Both companies had fuel samples collected, and sent for tests in the Indian Oil Corporation's (IOC) Research and Development Center in Faridabad. Nothing turned up in the normal tests. Maruti Udyog Ltd also sent the engine parts, corroded as if by hydrochloric acid. A chlorine test revealed the presence of chloropentane -- a dry cleaning solvent.

Fuel samples sent by Maruti Udyog Ltd to the Indian Institute of Petroleum, Dehradun similarly confirmed the presence of chlorine compounds at high concentration. Also, samples picked up by the anti adulteration cell of the Union ministry of petroleum and natural gas from outlets along highways in Faridabad and neighbouring Gurgaon showed traces of yet another dry cleaning agent -- acetylene. There seemed no end to the variety of materials used to doctor transport fuels: in 1998, when Maruti was swamped with complaints of large-scale fuel pump failures, the Dehradun laboratory had found traces of paint solvents in petrol samples.

After the Faridabad episode, prodded by the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers, the matter was taken up by the ministry of petroleum and natural gas itself. Yet, to date, no one has been penalised. No retail outlets in the region have been shut down. Adulteration, it seems, is good business.

Big drums in garages
The grisly racket is alive and kicking. In the third week of October, 2003, when the anti-adulteration cell swooped upon a godown of a chemical factory in Mundka village northwest of Delhi, it unearthed a 0.16 million litre cache of fuel suspected to be diesel. This was but one of many such seizures, all involving huge quantities of tampered-with fuel: in January this year, the department of food and civil supplies (responsible for checking adulteration) had unearthed a dump containing 0.28 million litres of illegal solvents in Shahbad Daulutpur, west Delhi.

Big drums in garages and workshops; loaded tankers casually parked at retail outlets -- these are but two links in a vast adulteration chain. It begins with pilferage from tankers carrying transport fuels. Swipe some petrol or diesel. Then mix a range of industrial fuels and solvents illegally diverted from industrial estates. The operation is carried out in ramshackle sheds that can be dismantled in the twinkling of an eye; and a similar mix and match occurs in retail outlets to fill the purse.

The network is all pervasive. Narrates a highly placed official in the anti adulteration cell about a raid in Abu Road near Ahmedabad, Gujarat earlier this year: "Dealers 400 km away were alerted in a fraction of a moment. By the time the team reached the destination, they were actually waiting for them to arrive." The same cell had raided eight outlets in Varanasi in the second week of October. They sealed as many as 7 outlets for malpractices.

Adulteration hotspots dot the country. Officials point at coastal areas, the interior of northern India, and northeast India as special trouble spots. Cities in the coastal region of southern and western states -- such as Cochin in Kerala, or Mangalore in Karnataka -- and coastal districts in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra are particularly vulnerable: here, easily available and cheap imported kerosene incite adulteration.

In southern states, IOC reported a drastic drop in diesel sales over the last couple of years. In Namakkal, a large trucking centre in Tamil Nadu, nearly 60-70 makeshift shops sell white kerosene to truckers. Says G Prasanna Kumar, director general of the anti adulteration cell, "About 60 per cent of the superior kerosene oil imported to Kerala is mixed with petroleum products."

Among other effects -- such as badly belching trucks, two-wheelers and three wheelers, and cars whose engines seize up -- adulteration by kerosene has had one that is extremely deleterious to the oil industry: diesel consumption in India in the last three and a half years has fallen by 3.6 million tonnes, or 10 per cent. Even as the oil incensed industry is lobbying heavily with the petroleum ministry to come up ways to restrict cheap kerosene imports and so combat adulteration, the crime itself continues unabated.

Indeed, the modus operandi can hoodwink any amount of policing. For instance, industrial units seek licenses to obtain tankers of kerosene to generate power for their own use. But many such tankers -- with valid papers and licenses -- never pass the factory gates. The problem here is that of extremely lax monitoring of the end use refinery products are put to. In a free-for-all regulatory atmosphere, illegal diversion has become the corrosive norm.

Moreover, kerosene is but one adulterant. As we move into the country's interior from the coast, the poisonous mix changes in nature. The mix depends on the availability of waste oil and solvents from industrial zones. Informs A K Bhatnagar, former chief of R&D at the IOC, "Even the same solvents come back to the market with a new name, making tracking difficult. And there are a wide range of refinery products that can easily mix with transport fuels." Petrol can mix with aromatics such as toluene or xylene, or lighter materials such as pentanes and hexanes. Diesel is more amenable to kerosene, or light diesel oil (LDO), used as an industrial fuel and similar to diesel in composition. Says a food and civil supplies official, "If you mix bitumen with kerosene, the solution you get is very similar to the furnace oil sold by refineries. This also finds its way into transport fuel."

The deadly chain of crime
While the crime infests the entire fuel supply chain, every one in the supply chain points fingers at each other. Petrol retailers argue they have no confidence in the quality of fuel they receive. They accuse oil companies of cheating them. For instance, at the time of delivery, invoices do not mention the temperature during the filling of the tankers. As a higher temperature would make the volume of fuel expand, the tanker can be filled with lesser quantity of fuel. The volume would shrink in the colder underground tanks at the retail outlet. So retail outlets receive less than what the invoice indicates; the actual volume of fuel delivered is eminently manipulable.

Says Atul Peshawaria, president, Petrol dealers association of Delhi, "When we receive our deliveries we can only test the density to know if we are receiving the right product. This is very inadequate. But our samples are tested against a range of parameters. This is unfair. We demand on the spot test of all relevant fuel parameters." But retailers are accused of obstructing collection of samples from all their underground tanks. Its simple: they temporarily disable the dispensers. Also, tampered dispensing meters allows for rampant short-selling.

Complete indiscipline reigns over fuel transportation. Fuel in transit is most vulnerable to pilferage and adulteration. A year ago, at the Bijwasan oil terminal, Delhi, a CSE team had witnessed rampant pilferage from oil tankers. Tankers trundled out of the terminal gate. Stopped in front of a nursery. A troop carrying 50 litre cans began pilfering fuel from the tankers with hosepipes, and disappeared back into the nursery. A revisit in October this year showed no change. Tankers still stop outside the terminal gates and the same drill happens. Moreover, almost every third tanker disappears into an enclosed construction site, locally called hotel, re-emerges after 10-15 minutes, and carries on down the road.

Oil companies do not take responsibility for the quality of fuel during transit. Even the official industry quality control manual holds transporters responsible for malpractices en route. According to oil industry estimates, oil companies own around 10 per cent of the tankers for fuel transportation. The rest are contracted out. In Delhi, for instance, retail outlet owners own nearly 50 per cent of the tankers.

Transporters and retailers, on their part, point fingers at oil companies, who they say supply substandard fuels. They suspect high amount of cross contamination in the fuel due to indiscipline in the supply infrastructure connecting refineries and oil terminals in cities.

Such connivance isn't limited to fuel suppliers. Drivers and operators of commercial vehicles, working on a fixed rental basis, resort to adulteration to keep a margin of profit. Short-term earning is the motive; long-term damage to the engine is of no concern. This is especially true of three-wheelers. Studies conducted by Ahmedabad-based Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology shows out of all registered three wheelers in the city, 45 per cent run on kerosene-mixed fuel. In Vejalpur bus-station and Thatlej, operators are known to mix kerosene quite openly.

In such a scenario, the only ones happy are those using compressed natural gas (CNG). Three-wheeler operators in Delhi claim adulteration is no longer an issue, as most of them have shifted to CNG. Of course, some still use 'back-up' petrol tanks filled with adulterated fuels.

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