Shut your shop

Shut your shop  one could feel the palpable air of unease in the courtroom as the additional solicitor general Kirit N Raval tried to plead on behalf of the Delhi Transport Corporation ( dtc ) before the Chief Justice Bench of the Supreme Court ( sc ). Without success. For every excuse Raval put forth, the judges cut him shortwith the one single retort: "You cannot justify dtc 's inaction in court." The day was March 31, 2000 - one that the dtc would certainly not forget in a hurry.

Raval made one last attempt to save the day with a plea to grant the dtc another five years for conversion of eight-year-old dtc buses to compressed natural gas ( cng ).An incredulous Justice A S Anand replied: "The transport minister says that two years are needed, your application states that you need five years and, if we see the progress you have made so far, we find that you will need at least 20 years to convert the entire fleet to cng . Do you expect the court to give you 20 years?" The plea was summarily dismissed.

Expressing outrage at the dtc 's move, Harish Salve, the amicus curiae , termed it as a contempt of court. "If the dtc wanted, they could have floated a global tender and acquired the buses from any company of the world. dtc asking for more time is aimed only to defeat the court order and it cannot be accepted."

The beginning of this dispute dates back to July 28, 1998, when the sc had instructed the dtc to convert all eight-year-old buses to cng by April 1, 2000.

As per the same order, the Delhi government was also told to convertall pre-1990 autos and taxis to clean fuel within the same time period. None of them were complied with despite the court having made it explicitly clear that it would not stand for any dilution of its order (see box: Abysmal performance).

Then, a few weeks before the deadline was to expire, dtc filed an affidavit before the court. Besides the plea to extend the deadline, it proposed several alternative options.

One of the suggestions made by the dtc before the court was to buy Euro ii diesel buses to replace old buses. It triggered off an uproar in the bench: "No diesel! No diesel! No diesel!" Justice B N Kirpal pointed out: "We were told that Euro I could not be brought in. Eventually, we got the industry to implement even Euro II norms. So now do not tell us that you cannot bring in cng buses because we know that it can be done."

In the intervening years after the 1998 court order, the dtc had appeared to be in no hurry to abide by it. Almost a year had lapsed before it placed its first order for cng buses with Ashok Leyland and Telco in early 1999. That too only 20 buses. The second order - and this time for 100 buses - was placed in January 2000.

In court, Raval tried to explain away dtc 's complacency with a range of excuses starting from non-availabilityof refuelling facilities to manufacturers not delivering cng buses on time.But the latter claim was refutedby industry counsels who confirmed before the bench that there were no pending orders with them for cng buses.

After hearing all the arguments, the court pointedly instructed the dtc : "Shut your shop. We cannot put the health of citizens at risk."

Who is to blame? The court's no-nonsense stance has the dtc in a fix. When questioned bya Down To Earth reporter on how the dtc planned to expedite the introduction of cng buses, dtc 's acting chairperson Ashok Pradhan could barely control his irritation. "The media thinks that it is the custodian of the people and reports only half the truth," he exclaimed, adding: "We are not answerable to anyone."

While revealing that the dtc was waiting to get the certified copy of the court order before it could filethe application and undertaking, he even hinted that the meeting be kept a secret.

On the other hand, the focus now is on whose door the blame for the faux pas should be laid. While transportminister Parvez Hashmi blames the ministry of surface transport (most )and Indraprastha Gas Limited ( igl ) -a division of the Gas Authority of India Limited ( gail ) - for not taking action on time (see interview: On a cautious note ), cng retrofitment agencies like Rare Technologies and Shrimankar Gas point their fingers on the state government for delaying all initiatives.

Even igl , entrusted with the taskof setting up 80 cng stations, is now claiming that it could not be done because of non-availability of land and dispensation license. Clearly, no concerted effort was made by the concerned authorities to implement the court order.

As for the next step, the DTC is yet to file an application and undertaking. In this regard, Hashmi says: "We will take our time to file the application and undertaking. This time the undertaking will be filed on strong grounds and after determining the specific roles that will be played by the IGL and MOST in implementing the order. We will file an undertaking only if they file undertakings saying that they will cooperate."

The DTC, obviously, wishes to take no chances the second time round.

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