April 4: On April 1 or Fool’s Day, India’s capital, New Delhi, wore a deserted look. There were no public vehicles on the road. According to a Supreme Court decision passed two years ago, they were required to run on compressed natural gas or CNG, to ease the terrible pollution levels in the city.

For two years, two successive Delhi governments slept through the deadline, not bothering to create a system that would make the transition easy.

A Problem, Naturally!
A Problem, Naturally! [Illustration by Shinod AP]
But, this time, the court did not relent. Only the vehicles plying on CNG were allowed on the roads.

April 1 was a Sunday and so people did not stir out. On April 2, Delhi was unrecognisable. Hundreds of people stranded at bus stops with policemen controlling them. Hundreds of others perched on the roofs of the few buses that were plying. Delhi, the national capital!!

School children who depended on public transport, took a holiday, while anxious parents all over the city created impromptu car pools.

The situation shows little signs of changing today, with sellers of CNG kits continuing to make huge profits. But the everyday bus traveller has little to smile about.

In several democracies in the West, decisions of such far-reaching importance are taken after a thorough debate on the pros and cons of such a shift. A debate on the relative advantages of CNG has been raging for quite a while in these countries, and shows no signs of clearing up.

The Supreme Court’s decision is aimed at bring down the rising levels of pollution in Delhi. But a lot of people are displeased with it.

Chief among these is the fact that conversion from a diesel engine to a CNG engine is not as easy as it sounds. The vehicle owners have to first, get permission from the Regional Transport Office to do so. Only then can they book a CNG kit. Moreover, the kits do not come cheap. For example, the CNG kit for an auto rickshaw costs Rs 21,700 (approx. $472).

The Supreme Court order says that only those bus operators who have already placed a firm order for CNG kits, can run their diesel buses till September. After that, they have to shift over to the new fuel.

Very few bus operators have the Rs 4.5 lakh (approx. $9,785) needed for buying one CNG kit. The Supreme Court has also disallowed commercial vehicles older than 15 years from plying in the city. As most buses are 10 to 12 years old, their owners do not see the sense in spending so much when the buses can be used only for three or four years more.

At the same time, many people are beginning to wonder if CNG technology will work in India. All the more so because the temperature in Delhi can rise up to 45 degrees celsius.

But what is CNG? CNG is natural gas that is stored in a vehicle in a compressed gaseous state. It is a mixture of hydrocarbons, mainly methane. It is produced either from gas wells or during crude oil production. In contrast to diesel or petrol, when CNG burns, it does not leave any poisonous residue behind.

Delhi is one of the most polluted cities in the world. Using CNG as a fuel will certainly be of help as the atmospheric pollution will reduce with time. But, how much will the commuters have to put up with, as a result?