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ANY expectation that the reprieve granted by the Supreme Court to the Delhi administration would result in a concerted, rational response to the impending transportation crisis seems clearly misplaced. What we are witnessing instead is a heating up of the ‘war of words’ on the advisability of the decision to lock the entire transport fleet of the city onto a single fuel mode, CNG. Though the state government claims that the additional time will now permit it to place the needed number of vehicles on the road without sacrificing quality and safety norms, its primary intention seems to be one of ‘forcing’ the court to review its July 1998 order.

Not unexpectedly, this has caused dismay among all those – mainly environmentalists and those concerned about deteriorating health due to vehicular pollution – who had worked hard to place these issues on the public policy agenda. They see in the recent spurt of articles the hand of lobbies interested in protecting markets and profits of manufacturers. Further, that these moves reflect a contempt of the court.

There is little doubt that many of the arguments against the decision to ‘go CNG’ were not raised, at least at the same level of intensity, when the hearings were held, both before the Bhure Lal Committee and the Supreme Court. We are, for instance, now informed that the eco-friendly qualities of CNG are somewhat exaggerated, that it not only adds to greenhouse gases but releases very small particles (under two microns) in the air whose health implications are uncertain. Further that CNG technology, particularly for buses, is still untested, particularly in the conditions that obtain in Delhi. Still others highlight the danger to public safety, more so since the cylinders and valves likely to be used (mainly from the grey market) may not conform to necessary safety norms. A recent explosion at a CNG filling station is cited as evidence.

More serious, however, are questions related to the economics of public transport. Shifting to a CNG technology – be it kits to alter fuel injection, the retrofit of a new engine in an old body, or the acquisition of a new vehicle – involves substantial capital costs. Despite the fuel being cheaper, recurring costs also go up, particularly repairs. And till the government arranges for adequate supplies of CNG, time spent in refuelling will be inordinately high. Of course some of these objections can be met through public investment or making available easy credit to vehicle owners.

But, in the interim, commuters are likely to experience a major hike in fares. In a city where the poor find extant fares high, this might push them outside the fold of public transport, into walking or cycling. The middle class too may well shift to two wheelers, both more polluting and contributing to congestion. One wonders whether adequate attention has been given to this aspect. Concern with public health is essential but if the decision does not make economic sense, it is unlikely to find many takers.

Does the answer then lie in ultra low sulphur diesel (ULSD) which is now being fervently advocated? This is not clear, not only because this fuel too releases carcinogens more than CNG, but also because improving fuel quality places burdens on petroleum producers. In the absence of higher public subsidy they will inevitably seek to escalate prices, the burden eventually falling on the consumer.

Alternatively, would it not be better to specify emission norms rather than seek to fix either technology or fuel, and leave it to the market to respond to the revised policy parameters? Such a choice has the additional merit of facilitating a plurality of technologies and builds in the possibility of sequentially introducing newer and better technologies, as and when available.

The objective of satisfying superior health standards cannot be met without someone agreeing to meet the additional costs – be it consumers, vehicle owners, manufacturers or the government. Rational policy choice demands that the burden and its eventual distribution be computed and put to public debate. If this involves reopening the decision taken earlier, then we should not shy away from this step. Courts too, after all, have often reviewed their earlier decisions.

It is unfortunate that none of the actors/agencies involved in this debate come through well. The process seems more reflective of a tendency to embarrass one’s perceived opponents than work collectively towards public welfare. Now that we have been given a window of opportunity, is it too much to hope that we will not, once again, be subjected to the wrangling and mud-slinging of the past?

Harsh Sethi