The Supreme Court order passed on Saturday banning all non-CNG cabs from the NCR is not Delhi’s first brush with such a mass conversion of diesel and petrol vehicles to the more environment-friendly fuel.
In the late 1990s, a similar directive by the apex court led to the conversion of all non-CNG public transport vehicles to CNG.
Responding to a PIL filed by environment activist and lawyer M C Mehta in 1996 — which alleged that emissions from vehicles were causing air pollution and posing serious health risks to residents — the Supreme Court in 1998 issued a directive calling for the conversion of all buses, taxis and three-wheelers to CNG.
To cope with this increased demand for the fuel, it also ordered the setting up of approximately 70 CNG stations, and two independent fuel testing stations. Aided by cheap loans from the Delhi Finance Corporation for replacement of old taxis and scooters, the capital boasted of the “cleanest public transportation system” worldwide by the end of 2001.
While studies from the period show that air quality initially improved considerably as a result of the order, practical problems faced by commuters and drivers of these vehicles were also many.
As more vehicles switched to CNG than anticipated, the number of CNG stations fell short leading to 10-hour long queues for refueling.
A study conducted by DTC chairman Rakesh Mehta, titled History, Politics and Technology of CNG-Diesel Bus Switch in Delhi, stated, “The CNG queues became longer and bus operators, including DTC, could not get gas after waiting for 8 to 10 hours. The compressors broke down frequently, there were cylinder bursts and one bus caught fire.”
A senior transport department official said, “A few buses did convert to CNG from diesel initially after the 1998 order. But they lost their efficiency and eventually had to be discarded because they stopped working. How can a bus running on a slow fuel like CNG carry a heavy load?… We do not have good technology like the West.”
In addition, commuters faced serious problems initially with several buses and three-wheelers going off the street, as a result of which public transport became more scanty, and more expensive.
Eventually, the impact of the CNG conversion also wore off since residents purchased additional vehicles, negating the effect of the plan.