Why authorize it?

If it’s broken, don’t fix it. That’s the new motto of the government: forget it and build another. Do not sort out details. I am talking of what the government believes will form the spine of regulation in future.

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. I think it is time to review this gelato of current governance.

Take an authority explicitly created to fasttrack growth—the Petroleum and Natural Gas Regulatory Board. Its objectives are to regulate oil and natural gas, critical for economic growth. The purpose is clear: the ministry, also of petroleum and natural gas, is clearly not up to the job of undertaking work in this new growth sector, so what’s needed is an independent and focused agency which can develop vibrant business without corporate-capture or other, powerful vested interests. I cannot say much about the Board’s work in other areas, but in a crucial sector of green growth—developing a Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) network country-wide—it is jeopardizing all that can be achieved, quickly and without pain, to bring relief to cities from toxic air pollutants.

Let me explain. 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 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 the overt assumption cng would never work in Delhi. We pushed: cng was the most scientific 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 as 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 to the right answer. As a campaigner, I know this: 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. The cng programme in Delhi has made massive gains—from cleaner air benefits for all of us to technology innovation and new safety design features in vehicles for manufacturers. In just five years, I have seen the market mature and so believed cng could be the fuel for buses in many other cities—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 (PNGRB) to move and shake things. Great. But instead of moving ahead with speed, 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 but we are not asking, even if the gas can bring massive public health benefits.

So, in the past three years, no new cng project has taken off. 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 ‘authorization’ of the already existing agencies, such as Indraprastha Gas Limited (IGL)—a joint venture between public sector gas companies, Delhi government and institutional lending agencies. After some months of dispute and acrimony, this was resolved, but leading to delays.

The current matter concerns gas distribution in the highly polluted cities of the National Capital Region, which impacts Delhi’s air quality. According to recent data, as many as 1.2 million vehicles transit between Delhi and its neighbouring cities every day. We don’t need rocket science to tell us we need clean fuel to run public transport vehicles. After protracted negotiations, the governments of UP, Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi have reached an agreement to allow public vehicles open access, provided these run on cng. This programme, underway and near implementation, is now 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. The case is in court. Time will be lost. Public health jeopardized.

The question on my mind is: have we created the right kind of future institutions for effective delivery, regulation or development? Let’s discuss two more instances—the Food Safety and Standards Authority and the state Environmental Impact Assessment authorities. Next fortnight.

—Sunita Narain