Market forces ' not government policy ' are prompting vehicle owners to switch from petrol to greener fuel. Steered by the spiralling price of petrol, private vehicles ' not state-run ones or autos ' are starting to switch to LPG.
'In May, the conversion rate almost doubled, compared to past months,' says Yash Khare of Lovato, supplier of LPG kits to 22 retro-fit centres. 'We would earlier convert 15 to 20 vehicles a month, but in May the figure jumped to nearly 45, of which 25 were four-wheelers,' adds Khare. With petrol price threatening to rise further, the number of car converts is expected to grow steadily.
'Apart from the pollution, cost is a prime factor. LPG costs nearly 40 per cent less than petrol,' points out Atul Surana, a businessman in whose extended family 12 out of 14 cars run on LPG. The alternative fuel costs just above Rs 24 a litre while petrol costs nearly Rs 41. This despite the gas costing more in Calcutta than in other metros. 'Mileage may be slightly less but the cost is much less than petrol,' agrees advocate Manik Das, whose car has been powered by LPG since 1999.
LPG-compliant cars are also gaining ground, feels J. Shah of Shah Automobiles, a Hindusthan Motors dealer. He has sold about 20 such vehicles this month, a marked increase. 'Customers realise the future lies in LPG for both environmental and economic reasons. But availability still remains an issue,' says Shah.
At Dewars, a Maruti dealer, numbers are less bullish. Of around 1,050 cars sold a month, only 15 are LPG-enabled. 'Customer awareness is increasing but figures are not encouraging,' says Sudhir Jhunjhunwala.
And commercial vehicle conversion numbers remain as low as ever. 'When there was talk of judicial and administrative pressure, a number of auto-rickshaws converted to LPG. Since then, there has been virtually no urgency. Few autos have come in since February,' says Kishore Vyas of Indian Trading Company, a retro-fit centre. About 1,700 out of 35,000 autos on city streets have made the change. In Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad and Ahmedabad, most autos have already switched to cleaner fuel or are in pipeline for conversion.
If you want to go the eco-friendly ' and pocket-smart ' way but don't know how, here is what you need to know and do:
How can my car be converted to LPG'
An LPG kit (an LPG carburettor or vaporiser) is fixed to a petrol engine. It can then run on LPG or petrol. Diesel cars are converted to petrol, then LPG. Existing rules allow almost any car to be converted.
Where do I take my car'
There are 47 LPG retro-fit centres in the city, where conversion is done. Of these, 22 use Lovato kits from Italy. The authorised distributor in eastern India is Euro II Services, 1/2 Beni Nandan Street (near Harish Mukherjee Road-Elgin Road crossing).
What do I need to do'
Take your car with relevant papers to any retro-fit centre. Submit a form to the motor vehicles department, which inspects the car and gives its stamp of approval.
How much time and money'
From four hours to a day depending upon the type, make and age of the vehicle. The cost for converting pre-2000 four-wheelers with carburettor is Rs 21,000. Euro II and Euro III cars will cost Rs 24,000. For three wheelers, the bill will come to about Rs 16,000 while for two-wheelers expenses touch Rs 6,000.
Where do I refill LPG fuel'
At seven refilling stations in the city now, with another five in the pipeline. The number will rise with demand. Automobile expert S.M. Ghosh feels there can only be 20 LPG stations in the city, as others don't have the infrastructure.
How safe is an LPG-run car'
Vehicles run on LPG are absolutely safe. There have been no reported accidents anywhere in the country, says Prof. Siddhartha Dutta, head of the chemical engineering department, Jadavpur University. A multi-dimensional safety valve and auto-shut system for the cylinder in case of an accident ensure minimum risk. The puncture-proof wall of the gas cylinder is at least five times thicker than the car body. The tank and multi-valve are both certified by the department of explosives, Government of India.
What about running cost and mileage'
LPG costs about 40 per cent less than petrol. A car owner who drives 1,000 km a month stands to save more than Rs 1,000 on fuel alone. Maintenance costs, too, will be less. But you can expect mileage to dip by about five percent on city roads.
How will it affect maintenance'
An LPG car will need a service once every six months, compared to once in three months for petrol cars. This is because carbon deposition in carburettors is far less and LPG does not have impurities like petrol. Engine oil required to drive 5,000 km in a petrol car go for 8,000 km in an LPG vehicle.
Can I use a domestic cylinder instead'
Bad idea. Not only is this illegal, it is unsafe, as these cylinders don't have proper fittings, including safety valves. However, a number of vehicles in the city and suburbs are fitted with domestic gas cylinders ' even cheaper than auto LPG.
Where does the state government stand'
Calcutta, the first city to submit an alternative fuel-based action plan to the Supreme Court about four years ago, has been the slowest metro when it comes to conversion. A recent transport department panel chaired by PCB member secretary Shyamal Sarkar suggested at least 70 LPG refilling stations for the city and the outskirts.
Recently, an order was passed that commercial vehicles 15 years or older in the Calcutta Metropolitan Area be either converted to LPG or garaged (deadline August 31 for autos and December 31 for taxis, buses, minibuses and trucks). But with an overwhelming number of vehicles falling into this age group, the green lobby fears this latest measure is designed to push things back, further.
How bad is the city air'
Calcutta is one of the most polluted cities in the world due to continually increasing vehicular pollution. Pollution from industrial sources has actually come down. According to PCB findings during 2003-2004, major pollutants ' suspended particulate matter (SPM) and respirable suspended particulate matter (RSPM) ' have been significantly higher (80 per cent over the national standard in some areas). Use of LPG or CNG is the suggested solution to bring down gross pollution by between 40 per cent to 80 per cent, depending on the pollutant.
What is the situation in other cities'
In Delhi, almost all autos and taxis run on CNG, as do nearly 8,000 government vehicles. In Mumbai, about half the 100,000-strong taxi fleet and 80,000 autos have shifted to alternative fuel. Chennai has seen about 10,000 conversions, Bangalore has converted around 90 per cent of the city's 25,000 autos and almost all its 2,800 taxis.
How far is LPG used worldwide'
Around 70 countries use it. There are around eight million LPG cars and 39,000 refilling outlets in the world. Most vehicles in Europe run on LPG, and it has been used for over 30 years in Italy and the Netherlands. Many cars in Japan and South Korea run on LPG. In India, more than 100,000 cars run on LPG.