In Delhi, clean-air deadline clears streets of gas vehicles

Unprepared to follow a 1998 court order, India's crowded capital is hit with a transport crisis yesterday.

Prakash Chand knew yesterday would be the mother of all commutes. Under a 1998 Supreme Court order, all commercial transport had to convert to a clean-burning compressed natural gas (CNG) by April 1. But with only a fifth of the total bus fleet in compliance, it's an act that's taken most of the capital's 15,000 coaches off the road.

That means the law clerk is considering extreme measures to get himself to work, including attaching himself like Spiderman to the top or the side of a packed bus.

"Bringing down pollution is a good thing, but the government should arrange for more buses. The public is being hassled," says Mr. Chand, watching yet another completely full bus pass him by.

Cleaning up the air in one of the world's most polluted cities was never going to be easy. Closing hundreds of smoke-belching factories last December - some operating out of apartment buildings - put thousands out of work. But the hardest part is overcoming inertia: While environmentalists and business leaders applaud any action that ends the reign of Delhi's pea-soup smog, they also point to the familiar trio of political ineptitude, big-business stalling, and bureaucratic red tape that keeps any ambitious policy from having its intended effect. And for the people, there's nothing to do but what they've always done - line up and wait.

"This has created social disorder," says S. Sundar, former secretary of transportation for New Delhi, and now a distinguished fellow at the Tata Energy Research Institute here. "It's going to worsen the pollution problem, as people are going to shift from public transport to other forms."

Yesterday public frustration erupted in violence as mobs clashed with police, burning several buses after forcing passengers off the vehicles. But figuring out who is to blame for the crisis is the main activity. Some commuters blame the city, which has done little in the area of transportation to implement the court's 1998 order. Some officials, for instance, were still issuing permits for diesel buses and taxis even a few months ago, because most people - including bus and taxi drivers - believed the order would be postponed indefinitely through legal appeals.

Others blame the army of bureaucrats required to issue, stamp, restamp, cross-check, and verify the permits of vehicles that have converted to Delhi's fuel of choice: CNG. Still others blame the business community, which had years to comply with the new rules, but waited until the last minute to do so.

What is not under dispute, however, is the shortfall of vehicles on New Delhi's streets, and the longer commutes: Nearly 15,000 public and private buses, 20,000 three-wheeler rickshaws, and 50,000 taxicabs have been forced off the roads. The transportation crunch is only expected to get worse next week, when a string of holidays ends and schools reopen, with no buses to take children to school.

The demand for CNG has meant good business for some, including manufacturers of CNG vehicles and the city's 68 filling stations that sell CNG. At the Indraprastha Gas Ltd. station near Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, two long lines of taxicabs and rickshaws wait for the only two pumps for miles around.

Anand Singh, a driver of a noisy three-wheeler auto-rickshaw, has been waiting for more than an hour. He is rewarded with only 1-1/2 liters of CNG - there's not enough pressure in the gas lines to give him more. Mr. Singh will have to come back to this filling station in another few hours to fill up again. "When do I drive?" asks Singh. "When do I earn?"

If commuters and drivers are unhappy, the environmentalists aren't much happier. Iqbal Malik, a local environmental activist, says that the goal of clean air could have been achieved without focusing on one largely untested fuel: CNG. "We spend tens of millions just to get everything converted to CNG, and if another better fuel comes along, we won't be able to respond," she says. "We will have exhausted our economic limitations on one technology."

Mr. Sundar, the former transportation secretary, says that "in Delhi, buses make up 0.5 percent of all vehicles on the road, but they carry 50 percent of all commuters. I personally believe that having more buses and getting more people to move away from personal cars is just as important as a clean fuel."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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