april 1, 2001 , the date set by the Supreme Court ( sc ) for the Delhi Transport Corporation ( dtc ) to convert its entire bus fleet to compressed natural gas ( cng ), is also All Fool's Day. And, going by the present state of affairs, it may well turn out to be so for dtc .

Faced with the challenge of reducing particulate matter in Delhi, in July 1998, the apex court ordered buses more than eight years old to be converted to run on cng or other "clean fuels' by April 1, 2000 and the entire bus fleet by April 2001. The court also directed the Delhi government to increase the number of buses from the present 7,000 (including private operators) to 10,000 by April 1, 2001. Accordingly, as confirmed by V K Bhatia, deputy chief general manager, dtc , about 1,848 eight-year-old dtc buses will have to be converted to cng by April 2000. In addition to this, some 1,030 more privately-run buses will also be eight-year-old by March 31, 2000, according to reliable sources (see table: Numbers game ).

The sc directive applies to both dtc and privately-owned buses in Delhi. Says Bhure Lal, chairperson, Environmental Pollution (prevention & control) Authority, "Not only the dtc but privately-operated buses also will have to shift to cng . In fact, the government should make shifting to cng or other clean fuels conditional to giving licenses to these private operators.' But private operators have no clue about the order (see box: What's the truth? ).

So far, dtc has done little in terms of framing an action plan for its implementation. With the deadline approaching, the target seems to be getting increasingly unachievable. Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit has already started seeking more time. "We are neither confident nor sure whether we will be able to supply over 1,800 cng buses (more than eight years old) by March 31, 2000. We may even have to approach the Court at a later stage,' she told the media recently.

In fact, dtc has already filed an affidavit in the sc seeking not just an extension of the deadline but also modification of the court orders. It has requested the court to interpret the order on "clean fuels' to include improved diesel buses, which means the court should allow dtc to procure Euro I-compliant diesel buses for which it had already placed an order in October 1998. Out of the 400 buses ordered, 35 have already been delivered.

Sneaking in diesel The industry grapevine has it that the diesel lobby is pressurising dtc to get the proposal to sell diesel buses reviewed as an interim measure till the conversion to cng is completed at a much later date, says a government official on conditions of anonymity. In fact, dtc has submitted a five-year "Augmentation cum Conversion' plan for the court's approval, which says it does not have sufficient funds to pay for the required number of conversion kits. Also, according to a dtc affidavit, a gradual phase-in would be a better option keeping in mind the needs of the commuter and development of infrastructural facilities.

According to the proposed plan, dtc would augment its own fleet from the present 3,122 to 5,000 by March 31, 2004. Of them, 2,614 would be cng buses, while 1,500 would be running on any "clean fuel'. Effectively, there will be 4,114 buses running on clean fuel while 886 will run on diesel. Among these diesel buses, 633 would be Euro I-compliant while the remaining 253 would be the regular dtc buses. "When the Supreme Court has allowed diesel cars to ply if they meet Euro I norms, then why not our buses?' asks Bhatia. dtc has also asked the court to exempt these buses from conversion to cng .

Bhatia believes plying Euro I diesel buses is a very attractive option when compared to cng . "The initial cost is low, the operation cost is low, it is a proven technology and the infrastruc ture is in place,' says Bhatia. It's another matter that the city cannot afford any more diesel vehicles, which could add to the carcinogenic particulate load in Delhi. There is another fact which seems to have eluded the dtc officials