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Sunita Narain: Why authorise it?

If the system's broken, why fix it? Government policy is to replace it with an 'authority', without sorting out the details

Sunita Narain  |  New Delhi 

If the system's broken, why fix it? Government policy is to replace it with an 'authority', without sorting out the details.

The flavour of the day is ‘authorities’: Separate, independent institutions not bound by departmental morass, not tied down by procedures or personnel — the bane supposedly of any implementation or regulatory initiative. But I think it is time to review this gelato of current governance.

Take an authority explicitly created to fast-track growth — the Petroleum and Natural Gas Regulatory Board. I cannot say much about the Board’s work in other areas. But its work in the crucial sector of green growth — developing a countrywide compressed natural gas (CNG) network — is jeopardising all that can be achieved, quickly and with no pain, to bring much needed relief to city residents from toxic air pollutants.

Let me explain this. When CNG was introduced in Delhi, to combat air pollution, it was a new concept. When we argued for CNG, we were told a transition of such a scale had never been done anywhere in the world. Figures were cited to derail the programme: “Only 800 vehicles, use CNG in Los Angeles and that’s the world’s largest programme”. With this overt assumption, CNG would never have worked in Delhi. We pushed: CNG was the most scientific and technically logical step to reduce Delhi’s crippling air pollution quickly and effectively. Diesel, made cleaner because of our intervention, was still highly toxic. Rather than taking an incremental route to cleanest quality diesel [which, incidentally, is yet to happen in India and will not happen even after we move to Euro IV (Bharat stage IV) fuel standards in April 2010], changing the fuel made more sense. This would give, and did give, a leapfrog advantage — we moved from an emission standard lagging 15 years behind the European Union countries to match their levels.

The transition was also seen impossible to implement: No technology for gas compression or dispensing; vehicle manufacturers did not know how to build safe and efficient vehicles. How would this be done — a successful CNG programme in the face of opposition from vested interests and resistant officialdom combined with a genuine lack of experience? The effort was to combat air pollution and fast; there was no option but to learn by doing and by quick corrections. As a campaigner, we had to get the details right — from gas pressure and design of nozzles needed to dispense gas quickly in vehicles, the outreach of the distribution network and, of course, the money and how the price should be fixed in a market mandated by court directives. Over recent years, the CNG programme in Delhi has made huge gains — from air pollution benefits for all of us to technology innovation and new safety design features in vehicles for manufacturers. The market matured and CNG could clearly be the fuel for buses in many cities of the country, thus bringing the double benefit of mass transit vehicles that run on clean fuel, for clean air.

In the meantime, the government set up the Petroleum and Natural Gas Regulatory Board to move and shake things on. Great. But instead of moving ahead with speed and effective implementation, we are, in fact, moving backwards. At a time when, reportedly, the country has found huge gas reserves — there is natural gas for the taking — we are not even asking if the gas can bring massive public health benefits.

So, in the past three years, no new CNG project has taken off in any city. What is worse is that the effort, seemingly, is to first take apart what is already happening and derail it. One of the first steps of the Board was to question the ‘authorisation’ of the already existing agencies, such as ‘Indraprastha Gas Limited (IGL) — a joint venture entity between public sector gas companies, the Delhi government and institutional lending agencies. After some months of dispute and lots of acrimony, this was resolved, but this lead to huge delays.

The current matter concerns gas distribution in the highly polluted cities of the National Capital Region. According to recent data, as many as 1.2 million vehicles transit between Delhi and its neighbouring cities every day. No rocket science is required to know we need clean fuel to run public transport vehicles. After much protracted negotiation, the governments of UP, Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi have decided on a common transport agreement to allow public vehicles open access in the region, provided these run on CNG. Now this programme, already underway and close to implementation, is being driven under. The Board has put a spanner in the works, purportedly for reasons of competition and allegedly because of corporate capture of one variety or another. Now the case is in court. Time will be lost. Public health jeopardised.

The question to my mind is: Have we created the right kind of institutions for effective delivery, regulation or development? Is regulatory capture easier in this set up? Let’s discuss two more instances — the Food Safety and Standards Authority and the State Environmental Impact Assessment authorities. This, next fortnight.  

First Published: Fri, September 25 2009. 00:20 IST