What is stopping Chennai autos from taking the LPG route?

Vehicular pollution is a critical problem in Chennai and yet more than 25000 auto-rickshaws continue to ply on diesel and petrol. Why are auto drivers unwilling to switch over to LPG, despite enjoying assurance of subsidies under government policy?

This article is part of a special series: Air Quality in our Cities

The sputtering sound of many of our auto-rickshaws and the chimney-like smoke emitted by them (as well as by buses and some cars) have one thing in common: Diesel.

At the policy level, the government of Tamil Nadu has taken various steps to phase out diesel vehicles from the roads, as a measure against vehicular pollution, but the implementation has been far from satisfactory.

In 2009, the State Transport Authority had directed the petrol and diesel driven auto rickshaws in Chennai to switch to Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG). According to the policy note, Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) also agreed to offer a subsidy of Rs 3000 for every LPG auto, in order to encourage owners to make the change from petrol/diesel to LPG. However, the scheme has hardly yielded the desired effect.

Auto drivers wait in hope

Chennai has more than 86,000 autos (share autos excluded), of which 26,000 ply on diesel and petrol engines. While the Regional Transport Offices are vigilant enough to not give new permits to diesel and petrol autos, non receipt of subsidies has stopped many auto drivers from changing over to LPG.

“The new autos are all run on LPG, as RTOs no longer permit the diesel and petrol engine ones. However, there is a good chunk of auto drivers who are yet to make the switch,” said CITU Auto Association Vice President, V P Chandran.

It is the high cost that has stopped V Saravanan (name changed), an auto-driver in T Nagar, from changing his 7-year-old diesel auto to an LPG-run one. “It takes more than Rs 13,000 to make the conversion. Many auto drivers who did so and sent petitions to RTO and TNPCB have not yet received the subsidy amount. How can I spend so much, when I struggle to make ends meet?” he questions.

Incessant calls to the concerned officials from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and State Transport Authority yielded little information. The spokesperson of the TNPCB, the nodal agency for issuing the subsidies said that the report has been submitted to the transport authority, almost eight years ago. “An approximate number of 2000 autos were subsidised, although the exact figure is in the report,” the spokesperson said. Transport Commissioner, C Samayamoorthy and Transport Minister M R Vijayabhaskar did not respond to calls.

There have been several instances of auto associations staging demonstrations over non-receipt of their due subsidy amounts, but little has come out of these. “Never did we get a proper reply from the transport department, nor were we told the reason behind non-disbursement of the funds. It is just not their priority,” V P Chandran said.

Going green fetches better income

Besides being more environment-friendly, the running and maintenance costs of an LPG vehicle is lesser than the others for auto-rickshaw drivers. Talking to a few auto rickshaw drivers with diesel, petrol and LPG run autos in Chennai makes the math clear.

LPG price stands at Rs 47.18 per litre, while diesel and petrol cost Rs 79.58 per litre and Rs 87.18 per litre respectively (as on October 2). LPG gives a mileage of 18 to 20 km per litre in the city, while diesel and petrol give around 22 – 24 km per litre. But LPG-run autos require Rs 1,500 every month for maintenance, which is negligible for diesel and petrol run autos.

However, V P Chandran says that “auto drivers using LPG can earn twice the amount earned by those who rely on petrol and diesel, even after taking into consideration the monthly maintenance.”

But what’s wrong with diesel vehicles?

A motorist from Kotturpuram covers her face to escape pollution. Pic: Laasya Shekhar

Diesel emissions have Volatile Organic Compounds and Polycyclic aromatic compounds that are proven to be carcinogenic, points out Polash Mukerjee, Senior Research Associate, Clean Air and Sustainable Mobility, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).

“Following the increased infrastructure cess on diesel vehicles, the initial investment to buy a diesel-run car has increased. But, on the other hand, as the fuel is cheaper, people figure out that diesel cars are still affordable in the long run,” he explained.

Increasing the prices of diesel is not a solution, as it would escalate the price of essential commodities that are ferried through diesel-run trucks. “Entry level cars also have diesel variants, unlike earlier where it was confined to luxury cars. There have to be stringent rules in place to phase out diesel cars. Price of diesel should be less for trucks than for expensive cars. But how can that be regulated?” he questioned.

Of the four fuel options available for autos – diesel, petrol, LPG and CNG – the latter two (LPG and CNG) are cleaner fuels owing to complete combustion and less pollution.

“With the Informal Public Transport sector (includes autos and share autos) accounting for over one-tenth of the trips made in Chennai, and given their importance for last-mile connectivity, it is critical that LPG and CNG autos be incentivised. The government should implement its policy of subsidising auto drivers who have switched to LPG-run vehicles, from diesel and petrol engines,” said Nashwa Nushad, Associate, Urban Development, The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP).

With subsidies and fuel bans on one hand, and increased numbers of filling stations across the city on another,  Chennai could see a successful switch over to LPG autos, she feels.

This article is part of a special series: Air Quality in our Cities, and explores the root causes for air pollution and solutions for improving air quality in Bengaluru and Chennai. This series has supported with a grant from Climate Trends.

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