Hammer of Thor

  • 29/04/2000

The Supreme Court has had to force the government to take hard decisions

When it comes to pollution control, it is only the hammer of the honourable judges of the Supreme Court (sc) that seems to push the government to do anything. Without creating a crisis, first for the auto industry last year and now for the government, it seems that no action gets taken. Almost, as if the government has abdicated its responsibilities for pollution control and public health.

The manner in which both the state and Central governments wasted the long lead time of 22 months, that the sc had given them is truly a murky story of how politicians and bureaucrats consistently give in to industrial lobbies. The sc order dates back to July 1998 with a clear deadline - to convert all eight-year-old buses (both private and of the Delhi Transport Corporation (dtc) to compressed natural gas (cng). Forget public interest. It is also sad that the media has failed to draw public attention to the totally non-cooperative and obstructionist role that the Central government has played in this entire drama. The Court, too, unfortunately, tends to overlook the latter's role because the prime responsibility for carrying out the Court's instructions rightly lie with the state government.

The diesel lobby has long been opposing the Court's order to get buses converted to cng presumably because it means entering a new line of technology and the 'cascade effect' of sc orders for Delhi which then get endorsed by the High Courts for other metros. Both dtc officials and officials of certain companies which manufacture buses have been saying for long that the cng conversion option is too expensive and that buses with Euro ii emissions standards running on 0.05 per cent sulphur diesel should be considered clean enough for Delhi. dtc wasted away the time given to it without doing anything and then filed an affidavit a few days before the deadline asking for a five-year extension in the hope that the Court would agree the Euro ii diesel option, which the dtc actually proposed in its affidavit. The collusion between the dtc and the diesel lobby could not be more self-evident. The argument in favour of moving to cng is very simple. The biggest pollutant in Delhi's air is small particulates and diesel buses contribute to as much as 20-25 per cent of all particulate pollution from vehicles. Moving buses to cng that has negligible particulate emissions, would mean a drastic reduction in this pollutant.

The diesel lobby's influence has been so powerful with the Delhi government that it has not been able to take any decision on another sc order of July 1998 which instructs it to augment its bus fleet to 10,000 by April 1, 2001. As the court had also ordered that all buses in Delhi must run on cng by April 1, 2001, the implication of the court orders was clear. The Delhi government had to ensure that all new buses it ordered had to be running on cng. It would be an absolute waste of money to order diesel buses and then convert them to cng within a year or so. But the state government could not come to grips with the matter lost in its dilemma whether it should order diesel or cng buses. At the least, the state government could have notified private bus operators that all eight-year old buses have to run on cng by April 1, 2000, but this much too was not done. What we see today is the result of a total disregard for court orders and amicus curiae Harish Salve rightly pointed out in court that the dtc affidavit amounts to a 'contempt of court'.

Central government agencies have also tried their best to be as obstructionist as possible. Let us begin with the ministry of petroleum. It was only around this time last year that the ministry had told the sc that it is not possible for it to supply any better than diesel with 0.25 per cent sulphur content. And yet within a year the ministry has backtracked and minister Ram Naik is proudly taking out public advertisements that both petrol and diesel with 0.05 per cent sulphur content will be supplied from April 1, 2000. How does a ministry change its mind so quickly? All this has happened not just because of the growing pressure from the sc now that only Euro ii cars are to be allowed from April 1, 2000 a court order in improvement in fuel quality was becoming inevitable. But the real pressure came with the entry of the private sector Reliance refineries who are waiting to capture the large Delhi market by offering the desired quality of fuel. A move which put the cat amongst the coy public sector pigeons.

Improvements in both petrol and diesel quality are vital for controlling emissions. In 1996, the sc had ordered that all new petrol cars must have cat convertors and asked for the introduction of unleaded petrol. But sulphur in petrol also destroys the catalyst. A cat convertor is supposed to last for 80,000 km but no manufacturer knows whether this is true or not. This is because of the poor fuel quality supplied to Indian consumers, making a mockery of sc orders. In the case of diese