Left Hanging

The DTC's plan to buy new eco-friendly buses is left hanging as Delhi government stalls the deal. Manish Tiwari and Anumita Roychowdhary report

Published: Monday 30 November 1998

Left Hanging

-- (Credit: Photographs: Amit Shanker /CSE)THE Delhi Transport Corporation's (DTC's) ambitious plan to replace its ancient, polluting and gas-guzzling fleet with new low-emission and commuter-friendly buses has gone haywire. Irked by the DTC's decision to buy the buses from European companies, two Indian bus manufacturers lobbied intensely against the deal. It was not long before the state government gave in, stalling the process till the forthcoming elections.

The DTC deal, however, has ruffled feathers at even higher places. The prime minister's office (PMO) itself intervened, putting the decision on hold. A DTC official, on conditions of anonymity, informed Down To Earth that the PMO even demanded a justification of the plan, asking why these buses were needed in the first place. "The Union government is under pressure from the BJP'S 'Swadeshi' brigade to favour 'Indian companies' as opposed to the foreign bus makers," he says.

Nine companies including big industrial names such as Volvo, Renault, Daewoo, Optaire and Man had bid for the tender floated recently by the DTC besides India's own Ashok Leyland and the Tata Engineering and Locomotive Company (TELCO). The tender stated that the buses would have to be manufactured in India. "The competing Indian bidders sought help from BJP'S 'Swadeshi brigade' to stop the purchase of these foreign-made buses," the official adds. Since the mid 1980s, several committees have been recommending that the DTC should replace its old fleet, a formidable percentage of which is over 15 years old. According to the recent Supreme Court ruling, these would have to be phased out soon. The DTC had planned to introduce 1,500 new city buses to meet the city's travel demands and cut pollution. Ajay Singh, director-DTC, claims that the new buses would have been 80 per cent more emission-efficient than the corporation's existing fleet. Further, the new buses would give an average of 3.2 kilometres per litre for a load of about 110 passengers. The existing DTC buses have comparable fuel efficiency but with only about 60-odd passengers. UK-based Optaire and Sweden's Volvo were shortlisted by the corporation and were subsequently awarded the contract. Optaire was asked to supply 1,400 buses and Volvo, 100. Ashok Leyland and TELCO, losing out in the race, sought support from the 'Swadeshi brigade'. TELCO claims to have developed a prototype city bus that can match DTC standards and Ashok Leyland promised that if given the deal, it would procure the buses from a UK-based company. But while it demanded Rs 90 lakh per bus, Optaire and Volvo were offering theirs' at Rs 28 lakh each.

This controversy has highlighted the unfocussed urban bus policy and stressed the need to address pollution and safety issues to guide the government. The state transport ministry had hurriedly drawn up a loose policy out-line under Rajender Gupta, the former surface transport minister, to expedite the deal. This draft fails to do justice to the need for "adequate, affordable, safe, comfortable and clean transport to reduce pollution and solve the problem of traffic congestion". In fact, it only summarily mentions that the engine should conform to the international pollution norms.

"This is not enough. The concept of an urban bus' has changed radically over the years with growing pollution problems. Any technology transaction should consider the potential impacts of the new technology on air quality. Indian emission norms for the year 2000 are only an older version of norm already junked in Europe. How emission efficient are the new buses?" asks H B Mathur, who had chaired the committee to recommend mass emission norms for 1995 and 2000 in India. "The government's hasty decision to buy the buses reveals lack of transparency in the whole deal," he says. An integrated long-term perspective is clearly missing and the policy-makers, used to taking ad hoc decisions, continue to vacillate every other minute, Mathur says.

Ironically, the role of traffic and transportation in curbing air pollution is one of the least understood problems. Statistics show an astronomical growth - about 13 per cent annually - in the number of vehicles on Delhi's roads in the last 20 years. In 1993-94 vehicular pollution accounted for 64 per cent of the total air pollution in Delhi. It is likely to go up to 72 per cent by 2000. The impacts are clearly Man visible: in Delhi, says a World Bank study, some 7,500 died in 1995, thanks to vehicular air pollution. The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), Delhi, subsequently calculated that by 1995 this figure had gone up to 10,000. Still, lack of a proper public transportation system has led to steadily increasing number of private vehicles.

Not even tough emission control laws can control vehicular pollution unless the number of vehicles on roads is restricted. The number of private vehicles on Delhi's roads is growing continuously undoing all benefits arising from controlling emissions. Lack of public transport in Delhi is forcing many to switch to their personal vehicles and the infrastructure is crumbling under the burden of massive traffic. According to the motor vehicle statistics of the surface transport ministry, cent of the total vehicles in India Delhi roads alone. Worse, the figure up by 13 per cent every year. 70 per cent of these vehicles are highly polluting three wheelers, emitting 70 per cent of the ydrocarbons and 48 per cent of uses can be increased to meet 78 percent of the city' travel demands with mass rapid transportation system introduces alongside, the total pollution can be slashed, at least by 25 per A motor car pollutes 90 times more a bus carrying the same number of people over the same distance. But the share of buses on Delhi's road is declining. According to the draft policy paper of the Delhi government, "Over the last five years, the share of public transport has dropped from 62 per cent to 58 per cent of total passenger trips." Besides, the buses which are plying in Delhi meet none of the safety, pollution and carrying requirements. A typical Delhi bus is, in fact, built on a truck chassis. It is unsuitable for urban travel, admits the draft policy paper. Since the truck engines are not designed for frequentstart-and-stop operations, these also have high emission levels. Ajay Singh, director, DTC, admits, "The government is not looking for long-term solutions. Rampant proliferation of these vehicles can be attributed to the lack of a good public transport system. It seems that by the time a proper transport system is introduced, Delhi will be dead already."

Politicians have ignored expert opinion on the urban bus issue all along. Even this time, the ruling party has chosen to ignore the recommendation of the feasibility report prepared by the DTC which detailed the advantages of the new buses. It showed how would this prove more beneficial in the long run in terms of revenue generation as wells as meeting the environment objectives.

Singh says, "The Union ministry of urban development (MUD) and the Union ministry of surface transport have been supporting the move to buy the buses."

This sudden splash of saffron polemics dictating environment and technology-related decisions has disturbed environmentalists. The government's action has betrayed its election manifesto which had stressed on promoting reserve engineering and developing, modernising and upgrading technology through import. However, the decision to stall the DTC deal in the name of 'Swadeshi' enjoyed The support of party hard-liners. The real concerns - environment and public health - are lost somewhere in the saffron mist.

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