The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Subhas steers smoke engine
Subhas steers smoke engine

Bangalore won’t wait for court directives to clear the air. But Calcutta will tread the legal route, eyeing a higher court than the high court, all to slam the brakes on a cleaner and greener environment.

Pushed to the wall by the April 2004 deadline set by Calcutta High Court in implementing Bharat Stage-II (BS-II) auto-emission levels, state transport minister Subhas Chakraborty on Sunday advocated the transport lobbies’ arguments in pushing back the changeover as far as possible.

From lack of enough time to lack of enough money, Chakraborty echoed their explanations. “My argument is very clear and specific,” he said. “It is impossible to change the engines of 15 lakh vehicles in such a short span (of 10 months),” he added, appearing confident that “any expert or anyone with some knowledge of automobiles” would agree with him.

For Chakraborty’s benefit, Metro got in touch with Ramanatha Rai, transport minister of a state (Karnataka) that did not wait for any court directive to get cracking on clean air.

“True, there is no court order for us regarding implementation of BS-II norms,” he admitted. “But that has spurred us to be more pro-active and get our house in order so that we are not surprised by court directives,” he added.

No vehicle more than 10 years old is allowed to enter the ring roads of Bangalore. Within the city, the government has already laid down certain norms — including the use of some pollution-control kits — for all vehicles.

Chakraborty claimed to have his own logic in backing the transporters’ arguments but party insiders said his stance had more to do with politics than transport. As the minister of a department referred to as the ‘honey-pot’ in ministerial circles, Chakraborty, officials corroborated, cannot antagonise a lobby that provides everything, from poll-time money to rally-time transport.

The minister himself, however, would not read anything into the plot that has, for the first time, seen the convergence of the government, individual politicians and the transporters’ lobbies in resisting a court directive to clean up the city’s air.

What Chakraborty left unsaid was that the state government knew, well before the April 2003 court directive, what was coming. Ever since S.M. Ghosh, an automobile expert, pleaded with the court in 1999 to do something to improve the quality of the air Calcuttans breathe, the government knew that a clean-up job was on the cards. Yet, nothing was done.

What Chakraborty is saying now sounds akin to what politicians said in Delhi in 2001. But the logic offered then — the lack of time, given the enormity of the changes — was brushed aside by the court there.

Protests and strikes greeted the court’s directive but the buses and autos cleaned up their act and came back on the road, slowly but surely, as the transport lobby got a measure of the judiciary’s seriousness.

Things could be heading the same way here. Already, in a predictable replay of the Delhi scenario, transporters have said they do not have the money to transform the smoke-spewing engines into ones that conform to permissible auto-emission levels.

“Can you imagine what will happen if public transport goes off the road'” the state transport minister asked. Echoing the transport lobbies, that appear unwilling to invest in a smoke-less future for the city, he added that “owners of most vehicles will not spend money to change their engines”.

“Is there anyone who can supply 15 lakh engines in 10 months' Is there any agency which can fit 5,000 engines daily' Will any bank come forward to provide loans to the vehicle-owners'” he demanded.

Besides, Calcutta cannot be compared with Delhi, which has compressed natural gas (CNG), he feels. Predictably, there was no clear-cut reply on what the state government had done to get alternative gas pumps rolling.

Chakraborty, however, insisted that he was not acting as the transporter lobbies’ spokesperson. “I am just telling you the situation on the ground,” he said.

“As transport minister, I have to look into the problems of both commuters and transporters and to devise a route that will not harm either of the two divergent interests,” Chakraborty added. “We have, therefore, told the court that old vehicles will be scrapped, but in a phased manner,” he said.

The minister, however, is not limiting his options to the high court here. Claiming that chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was convinced of the problems, Chakraborty said the Supreme Court would be petitioned if appeals here failed.

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