Air Gets Murkier: Latest Supreme Court Ruling On CNG

THE latest ruling of the Supreme Court reiterating mandatory and exclusive use of CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) in public road transport vehicles in Delhi, turning down the appeal by the Delhi and central governments to also permit use of Ultra Low Sulphur Diesel (ULSD) and effectively prohibiting non-CNG buses from plying in the capital with immediate effect, once again threw the capital into utter turmoil. As has happened repeatedly with earlier Supreme Court rulings on this issue, neither the central nor Delhi governments had made any contingency plans, this time wishfully optimistic that the Supreme Court would not throw out the recommendations of the high-powered Mashelkar Committee headed by no less a person than the Head of the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research. As a result, the commuting public was once again left to face untold hardships with drastically reduced number of buses on the roads.


Having been at loggerheads for one reason or another, and seeking to make political capital at each others expense even as the public suffered, the Delhi and central governments came together for this latest Supreme Court hearing, both pleading with the Court to allow a “dual-fuel policy” under which bus operators could choose either CNG or ULSD as fuel. The BJP-led central government continued its flip-flop position on CNG with union petroleum minister Ram Naik, who had earlier maintained that enough CNG was available but its supply was being mismanaged by the Delhi government, this time pleading before the Court that CNG availability was inadequate, a stand contradicted by public sector CNG suppliers, Indraprastha Gas.

With the public having seen through the BJP’s attempts to make the Congress government in Delhi a scapegoat and even contributing to their woes, the central government continued to flounder not knowing which way to go. For its part, the Delhi government repeated its past performance of sleeping on the issue till the next Court ruling, and then reacting in panic and pleading for sympathy for the plight of commuters in whose interest expeditious action could have been taken earlier. The Supreme Court had sharp words for both central and Delhi governments, accusing both of only trying to somehow undo the Court’s orders. The Court’s attitude was so hard that belligerent BJP MPs of Delhi, who got together with leading cabinet ministers such as home minister Advani and law minister Arun Jaitly and promised to issue an Ordinance to nullify the Court’s ruling, sheepishly and hastily beat a retreat, no doubt fearing that the Court may even strike the Ordinance down leaving the BJP-led government with even more egg on its face.

The Delhi government, apparently accepting these ground realities as a fait accompli, has simply gone about making administrative arrangements including the farcical permission, so obviously circumventing the Court’s intention, for diesel-powered buses to ply after paying daily fines of Rs 500! Pollution at a price, but in the face of massive public anger, inconvenience and frustration, nobody is complaining.

But equally nobody is convinced that the Supreme Court ruling is the last word on the vexed issue of vehicular pollution nor that it has answered the several questions which arise from it. For instance, is CNG the only “non-polluting” fuel? Should ULSD be allowed, and what are the pros and cons? Is the Mashelkar Committee correct in recommending that use of any fuel should be allowed so long as it meets recommended emission standards? Who should decide on such issues, the executive, the judiciary or the hitherto silent spectator, the legislature? What is the experience of other countries? And finally, where do we go from here? Is there a National Auto Fuel Policy as recommended by the Mashelkar Committee, if so what is it, and not what should it be?

In the wake of the latest Supreme Court ruling, there was evidence from Mumbai and other metros that, in consideration of public interest litigations there, the High Courts were preparing the ground for measures similar to those now in effect in Delhi. Clearly, the situation in Delhi is poised to be repeated elsewhere in the country, making it all the more urgent that the many issues raised by the CNG issue and the stands taken by the Supreme Court as well as by the political executives be examined seriously once again. While many of these issues had been discussed extensively earlier in these columns, it would be worthwhile to cover the ground once more, especially in the light of the Mashelkar Committee recommendations and other recent developments.


Critics of the Supreme Court’s CNG only policy, especially supporters of ULSD, have tried hard to indict CNG for not being as non-polluting or otherwise non-problematic as claimed. The fact is, a good dedicated (designed for the purpose rather than retro-fitted) CNG or LNG (liquefied natural gas, used extensively in the US though not in India since it is only imported) engine should emit about 90 per cent less carbon monoxide, 85 per cent less ozone-forming hydrocarbons and virtually no particulars as compared to petrol or diesel-fuelled vehicles.

Almost total absence of particulate matter, especially of less than 10 micron size which enters the lung and stays there for extended periods causing long-term respiratory ailments, is perhaps the strongest factor favouring CNG over other fuels. Also, unlike liquid fuel vehicles, CNG vehicles do not emit hydrocarbons from the heated engine or during fueling, which can account for close to 40 per cent of hydrocarbon emissions in any petroleum-based vehicles.

Various figures have however been advanced purportedly showing that CNG actually comes off worse than ULSD in terms of emissions under simulated or actual road conditions and that low-sulphur diesel is also more economical than CNG.

Data from the USA, which has the largest body of evidence of operating natural gas buses, shows clear and marked reduction of emissions as compared to low-sulphur diesel. As regards costs, data available in India based on experience of over 5 years in Mumbai and Delhi representing more than 9 million km of bus journeys, shows that even compared to “dirty diesel” (i.e. with the normal sulphur content), fuel cost per km is Rs 4.07 for CNG compared to Rs 4.86 for diesel in Delhi. These costs would be even more in favour of CNG if more expensive ULSD were to be used. If administered prices or selective subsidies are not involved, CNG should be about 30-50 per cent cheaper than petrol and considerably cheaper than diesel due to which natural gas vehicles form such a large part of programmes worldwide to counter the growing menace of vehicular pollution.

It is not surprising that some interest groups would like to push for ULSD as it would require small additional investment on the part of vehicle manufacturers, transport operators and fuel dispensing stations, all of which could more or less maintain status quo. On the other hand, ULSD would call for huge investments on the part of oil and fuel refining companies, in India mostly by the State, thus thrusting the burden of costs on to others’ shoulders. One does not have to be a rocket scientist to figure out which interests are at work in pushing aggressively for ULSD! Unlike what the Supreme Court, or the Delhi and central governments would have us believe, the choice is not between a CNG-only policy or a “dual-fuel policy”. There are many other less polluting fuels such as ethanol, propane, various bio-fuels etc and vehicles could also be powered by fuel-cells, batteries and so on. All these offer cleaner alternatives to petroleum-based fuels and have been widely adopted in different countries as part of multi-fuel measures to control vehicular emissions

The Mashelkar Committee is therefore correct in arguing, as indeed argued in these columns and by groups such as the Delhi Science Forum, that a single fuel policy as ordered by the Supreme Court is unscientific and unjustified. No other country has followed such a course for the obvious reason that not only are there other “clean” fuels but more specifically because emission standards rather than types of fuels or engines should be the criteria for assessing and controlling vehicular pollution.

Specifying any single fuel not only prevents the adoption of other alternatives but also shuts the door on future research throwing up better alternatives. For instance, fuel cell vehicles are in the offing a few years hence which will produce only water as waste, so would the Supreme Court stand in the way of this technology too? Clearly, the Bhure Lal Committee which advised the Supreme Court and the Court itself which accepted the advice and has stuck to it in repeated rulings, have erred grievously. But does this mean that the Mashelkar Committee’s recommendations and the government’s actions based upon it are correct?


It is argued here that the entire current muddle is the result of a deeply flawed judicial system and process where the Court is called upon, and agrees to, not only adjudicate but pass detailed orders on matters involving few issues of law and calling for wide-ranging expertise far beyond its reach. Nor is it proper for the executive to simply frame an order based on, for instance, the Mashelkar Committee recommendations recommending not one but two or more fuels. The present murky situation in India has been in part caused, and is certainly being compounded, by the failure of the legislature to draw up proper laws and policy frameworks as well as spell out suitable enforcement, regulatory and monitoring mechanisms.

In the USA two Federal laws, the 1990 Clean Air Act (CAA) and the Energy Policy Act of 1992 (EPACT) stipulate requirements for alternatives to petroleum fuels. The CAA requires individual states to implement clean-fuel fleet programmes and the EPACT requires the Department of Energy to implement an alternative-fuel fleet programme, the emphasis on fleets i.e. bus, truck and taxi companies being to cover large numbers of vehicles operated collectively. These laws require that all fleets should gradually move towards Alternative Fuel Vehicles by ensuring procurement of new such vehicles in increasing percentage every year until, by 2006, about 75 per cent of all municipal and private fleets’ new vehicle purchases must be Alternative Fuel Vehicles using any of a number of “clean” fuels such as CNG/LNG, ethanol, propane, various bio-fuels etc so long as they all conform to common emission standards prescribed by the federal EPA and by respective state governments, leaving to the individual fleet the relative proportion of different Alternative fuel Vehicles it acquires. Individual States also offer subsidies for such purchases.

As we can see, the aim and the criteria used to monitor progress towards cleaner air quality is not just the fuel used or the type of vehicle but the level of emission set as the standard to be achieved within a stipulated and graduated time frame. Most importantly, this entire process has been legislated both in terms of emission standards as well as fleet requirements, with clear executive and monitoring roles for the Environment and Energy/Fuel departments or ministries. Consequently, the Courts did not figure anywhere in this picture. Further, if the USA did not have such legislation, president George W Bush with his close ties with the oil industry, would have simply issued an executive order negating all such requirements and permitting a laissez faire policy regarding fuel use leaving all choices to the consumer, a course now being advocated by the central and Delhi governments.

It is therefore incumbent on the union government which, till now, has shirked its constitutional obligations regarding public health and the environment by passing the buck to the Courts or state governments to frame suitable legislation along the above lines and bring it before parliament. The Mashelkar Committee’s recommendations can be the starting point of such an exercise which should lay down requisite fuel properties and vehicular emission standards for alternative non-petroleum fuels and corresponding vehicular technologies whose use should be encouraged both through a mandated, phased adoption by public transport vehicle operators as well as through incentives provided by both centre and states. Necessary infrastructure could then be set in place in keeping with this schedule without there being a time lag between the mandated requirements and the ability of the infrastructure to cope with it as is the case at present.

Anything short of such legislative action would only make the air murkier, both literally and figuratively, and allow all sorts of lobbyists to operate in the haze while the relationship between the different arms of the state get even more distorted than they are now. Clean air is everybody’s birthright but it cannot be delivered by an inexpert judiciary or by knee-jerk executive actions pushed by this or that lobby.