The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Six-year stall on smokestreet

Ten months from now, the state government may realise what ignoring a six-year hitch can mean.

Contrary to the position taken by state transport minister Subhas Chakraborty — that it is impossible to implement Bharat Stage-II (BS-II) norms for auto-emission rules in “just 10 months” — the government knew for the past six years which way the foul fumes were blowing, officials admitted on Monday.

April 2004 — by when the high court order to clean up the Calcutta air must be implemented — might loom uncomfortably near when viewed from July 2003. But it was way back in 1997 — when a petition forced the transport department to withdraw 200 smoke-belching buses from service — that the government realised that the clean-air countdown had begun (see box).

Nothing was done to clear the smokescreen between the government and the judiciary, admitted officials who were then serving in the state transport department. Minister Chakraborty had first tried to stall the switchover, stating that his department did not have the infrastructure to manufacture parts for improving the quality of engines and that pulling so many buses off the streets would cause chaos.

With the high court sticking to its stance, the government was forced to withdraw the buses, but only for a while. After hibernating in the transport department depots, they were brought back when the heat was off, despite environment minister Manab Mukherjee’s public protestations that no polluting bus would be allowed on the roads.

Going by past non-performance and present polemics, the green lobby says it does not expect the government to do anything more than parrot the transport lobby’s lines in stalling the court-imposed April-2004 deadline.

A government that takes a year to form an expert committee to reply to the court’s queries on environmental concerns (flashback to 1999-2000, after auto-emission expert S.M. Ghosh had moved high court) can do no better than mouth the cliched “no-time, no-money” argument, they point out.

The 10-member committee formed in 2000 ultimately recommended the phasing out of all 10-year-old vehicles, the improvement of roads and the quality of fuel. The recommendations reached the high court in 2002. To date, all those recommendations remain just that — recommendations in red-tape-bound government files.

According to transport officials, the 2001 eco episode — with the Supreme Court forcing the Delhi government to conform to auto-emission norms by converting transport-vehicle engines to CNG — should have conveyed to the Bengal government the seriousness of the judiciary’s intentions. Despite protests and strikes in Delhi, the court remained firm, ultimately forcing the disgruntled transporters to switch to CNG.

Back in Calcutta, minister Chakraborty refused to back down. “I am not against complying with the court’s order… We only want some more time to tide over some very real problems,” he repeated on Monday. “Four departments are involved and the task is not so easy.”

On Sunday, Chakraborty had claimed that no agency could pull off the BS-II switchover within the court deadline. The Indian Oil Corporation (IOC), on Monday, called his bluff. Without referring to the minister’s musings, general manager P.K. Basu said IOC could ensure that fuel conforming to BS-II norms flowed out of every pump in the city by April 2004.

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