With the need to save money on expenditure like transportation to balance the household budget, here are a few observations on the subject—which can actually be tried out. But we, the users, have to take the first step—the seller would rather prefer the status quo
I’ll begin with two interesting episodes at fuel filling stations recently, coupled with a set of numbers:
1) A regular customer, car-owner, using the filling station for decades and known to the owner, was getting extremely angry about the price of fuel and taking it out on the owner's rep despite all protests that they were only dispensing fuel—they were not responsible for the prices. The issue was actually also about minor cheating in volume dispensed as perceived.
2) A two-wheeler rider getting air filled up in his motorcycle tyres was carrying his own pressure gauge, and after getting his tyres pressed up, came to the office and told them that their gauges were off by over 10%, showing more pressure. He claimed that this was being done at all filling stations to increase fuel consumption in the face of dropping sales.
The biker made another interesting point—his cost of fuel and operations including insurance, parking, and other running costs per day were now between Rs140 and Rs170 for a usage of about 80 kilometres daily. And it was rising as his bike was now out of warranty and parking rates had been hiked recently too. His cost of ownership, on the other hand, was almost down to nil because the bike was about 3 years old and almost paid up—but while he had been paying for it, the cost was also about Rs150 per day. As the bike grew older, it would make more sense for him to reduce usage, and use public transport—which was coming to about Rs50-Rs60 per day. And save the bike for a down payment on a Tata Nano, which he would then use only for family purposes—out of the bike’s ‘non-usage’ savings.
The math was a bit convoluted, because it also included some amount of reimbursable office work, but his calculations were that the reimbursements were not worth it any more because they also took 3 months to reach him. It was better to use public transport and present daily vouchers on actuals, and try to catch up on work in the Metro or bus—work which was mainly on telephone and SMS. Of course, this is in Delhi/NCR, where public transport has advanced by leaps and bounds over the last few years. Sure, buses, local trains, EMUs and metro trains are still packed to overflowing during office hours, but things appear to be getting better every day.
Back to the interactions. In both cases, there was much anger, much shouting, and eventually much hot air, with no cogent solution. For the retail outlets, it is simple—the customer has to go somewhere, and it evens out. For the oil companies, it is simple—targets for increasing sales have been set and need to be achieved by any means fair or foul. But the customer, the actual private consumer, is beginning to show signs of revolting.
One, the usage of public transport is going up, and not just the 2-million people per day on the Delhi Metro as well as the half-a-million on buses, but also on short-distance hops by autos and taxis. Next, they are not taking things like quality and quantity issues lying down, and as for the less air pressure scam—it is well-known already, most regular riders and drivers overfill to compensate based on visual and kick on the tyre methods. And thirdly, a drop in liquid fuel sales are now a cause for concern at filling stations in and around Delhi/NCR—the attached shop often is the mainstay of profits.
More importantly, even in social groups where cost of living is not such a big issue, the cost of basic transportation is now increasingly a point being discussed. Real estate costs are viewed as investments, food and education are necessary expenditures, but transportation is now viewed as a hole in the pocket which needs to be plugged. Rapidly. By any means whatsoever. Which probably explains why so many automobile manufactures are providing special deals on "free fuel", with the purchase of a new car or bike.
However, back to the basics, you and me and the retail outlet. Where, in all likelihood, will lie most of the solutions.
In both cases, after the episodes, I asked around, talked with people at the filling stations, and truth is always over a cup of tea—both the customers were correct. There has been an increase in attempts by the oil industry to apparently try to get retailers to sell more, especially in the Delhi/NCR area where the Delhi Metro is viewed almost as Oil Company Enemy Number One, and somehow gets people to consume or pay for more liquid fuels. Downstream, how it translates into reality at the filling station, is where the front-end is facing the ire of customers.
Forcing customers to buy "premium" fuels, for example, is one time-honoured tactic. The Indian Oil CoCo I often use has simply stopped keeping "ordinary" diesel at most times, for example. The under-filling of air into tyres is frankly a new one on me, but now that it is out in the open, appears to make sense—10% less air in tyres can easily mean about 15%-20% more in terms of running costs—not just fuel but also lubricants and earlier engine repairs as well as faster wear-and-tear of tyres. And hanky-panky on quantity as well as quality is as old as the hills.
So what can be done to, at the end of the day, help customers and consumers save money and at the same time ensure that the retailer does not go out of business or change his line of business, or face the increased ire of his bread-and-butter supplying user?
Seeing we are just over the Diwali season, when all of us prayed to Lakshmi in all her aspects of wealth, any suggestion, request or solution needs to be as inclusive as possible. This, therefore, needs to work for the customer, consumer, retailer as well as oil company. It simply won't be sustainable otherwise. Yes, it may be bad news for those who make their livelihood out of each stage in the transaction—from purveyors of high-sulphur motor spirit made in ancient refineries and not used anywhere else in the developed world to the traders in between and the whole great chain of entities for whom a consistent growth in consumption of petroleum products, the higher the cost the better, spells not just survival but further power, down to the end of the food chain.
For sure, the liquid fuel industry does not want to see what happened to the iron ore industry happen to them, but then again, it will be for the consumers and customers who pay who may need to demand solutions.
1) The traditional oil companies in India need to start thinking as energy companies, and not a second too late, rapidly. So, whether it is Indian Energy Corporation, Bharat Energy Corporation, Hindustan Energy Corporation or Indo-Burma Energy, the petroleum or oil part needs to be put aside. Even the Ministry needs to be renamed. Obviously, this is not going to happen in a hurry, because the existing inertia levels are going to ensure that India's dependence on expensive imported liquid petroleum products and crude need to continue as long as possible, but we can try to change things.
Question: How can consumers and customers drive this change? Simple, by making it clear to the retailers that they will not accept these backdoor methods of paying for increasing consumption any more. To start with, ensure that air pressure in tyres is always a notch over the stated levels, and keep your own pressure gauges to re-check this—and make a protest if there is a flaw. Next, be more proactive on double-checking quality and quantity of fuel dispensed—here again, feedback is that hardly anybody ever stops to do so. These two small but significant steps will in their own way start getting the message back to the powers that be that yes, the consumer is not taking these tactics lying down any more.
2) An important part of a visit to a filling station in the old days used to be the regular servicing of a car or bike. Typically, service intervals used to be 1,000 miles/1,600 kilometres or a month, the main reason being that engine oil technology about 30-40 years ago had not reached the point where service intervals could be longer. Today, most vehicles are good for 10,000 km or a year for oil change and service interval, and some high usage buses and trucks can go as much as 50,000 kilometres without needing an oil change or service. But in all cases, one thing that has not changed is the amount of dust and other particles in the air—if anything, it has gone up. And what that means is that the air filter in our cars and bikes ideally still require monthly or even more frequent cleaning.
Unfortunately, we tend to ignore this because it is hidden away somewhere in the fine print of the owner's manual, and so for most of the year we keep driving with increasingly choked air filters—which in turn increases fuel consumption. Cleaning an air filter is relatively simple, all you do is click open the cover, and run a reverse compressed air flush through it for a few seconds, and then put it back in. It is all there, explained in the book, but it does not suit anybody else but you who pays for the fuel to ensure this is done at least once a month. Start now, and insist that the filling station, where you will get compressed air, does it when you go to fill air in your tyres. This simple step alone can do wonders for the fuel economy of your vehicle. It will also get a message across to the oil companies.
3) If you drive upcountry, you will note that especially in the hilly areas, a complete support industry has come up near filling stations. Much of this is in the co-linked field of automobile repairs, but interestingly, of late, one can spot a lot of home gadget repair shops also, handling electrical and mechanical repairs. It is here that you can pick up and install some wonder low- or no-friction bearings for your ceiling fans, for example, as well as for your automobiles, at costs well below what they are in bigger cities. Asking around, I was shown by one such shop the complete catalogue of all the automobile spares I could ask for, for any vehicle, make, model, available on his computer—some available off the shelf and the rest on order, delivered from Bangkok or somewhere similar with no questions asked in 72 hours or under.
But along with these automobile spares, they also organised delivery as well as installation of energy saving and renewable energy solutions of the solar and mini-hydel sort, especially LED lights of all sorts. To them, the coexistence with the filling station was more than it being a catchment area for customers—they perceived that they were now ahead in terms of leading and cutting edge technologies in the field of energy. For example, as they pointed out to me, their back-up inverters were linked to solar panels through the controller, but the filling station was still using diesel for gen-sets. The question arises—why can't the oil companies themselves take the lead here, and sell the same energy saving and renewable energy devices from their own locations?
4) If you are looking for a replacement car or bike which operates on any petroleum based fuel, liquid or gas, start letting the managers and owners of filling stations know that you are now seriously looking at battery operated options. Under the present dispensation, it will have to be a very brave or forward thinking filling station owner or operator who will have any good things to say about battery operated vehicles—some of us will recall the serious opposition from the same oil companies against CNG cars at one stage not too long ago.
But if the oil companies had any sense, they would embrace this wave towards battery operated cars and bikes with both hands, as opportunity instead of adversary. As it is, the battery replacement business for "normal" vehicles has moved out of the hands of filling stations towards the open market, now if the filling stations which can support every other element of battery vehicles do not take the opportunity to provide battery after sales and service, then they will have only themselves to blame. A set of batteries is a one-time expense, there are so many options—lease-rental, outright sale, rejuvenate, import and even get into manufacturing them.
On Diwali, it is all about inviting Lakshmi in, and maybe we need to do our loyal and faithful friends at the filling stations a favour —by telling them, that if they don't look at changing with the times, then maybe they aren't really recognising Lakshmi. And in the bargain, if we benefit, then that's really the whole idea of spreading the wealth, right?
Citizens seem to have finally realised that Diwali is peaceful and joyous with sparklers and starry firecrackers rather than earth-shattering bombs. A combination of events and efforts made this happen. Would other cities follow suit and make Diwali a festival of light and joy in the years to come?
My article on the “Politics of Noise” of 27th 2011 (See: Politics of noise or how norms are drowned in the cacophony) preceded the ‘Navaratri’, ‘Eid’ and Diwali festivals I, had mentioned that I would be writing in the run-up to these festivals. “Politics of Noise” was to cover the Shiv Sena ‘Dussehra’ annual traditional public rally at Shivaji Park, followed by the harmful effects of bursting firecrackers. Now both the events are over and there is bad news and good news.
The bad news is that the Bombay High Court permitted holding of the Shiv Sena rally on ‘Vijaya Dashami’ on the condition that it observed the Noise Rule—and Shiv Sena, as expected, flouted the Noise Rule for the second year in succession. This event will have to be covered separately so that by next year’s ‘Vijaya Dashmi’, certain norms would have been formulated and the noise rule in its principle would not get violated. The latest news is that the play “Janata Raja” has been granted permission, again by the Bombay High Court on 21st October, to perform before an audience of 6,000 plus in December this year. The organisers are reported to have planned a distributed speaker system to keep the noise level within the limits of law. I think, acoustics experts and academic institutions like IIT Bombay must be commissioned to verify the design before permitting this play to be held. There is no need to say that ‘this time also it failed the test’.
Now, it is time to actually celebrate the good news. The good news is that the citizens of Mumbai have finally decided to lessen the noise emanating from firecrackers. This has not only been reported in most newspapers, but has been personally so observed by me at my residence in Babulnath near Chowpatty, south Mumbai. Marine Drive, which would witness bursting of noise- and smoke-emitting firecrackers well past midnight all these years, seems to have complied by and large with the noise rules.
I did travel on the nights of ‘Dhanteras’ or ‘Laxmi Pujan’ and ‘Bhau Beej’ and observed a peaceful atmosphere by and large with sporadic bursting of loud firecrackers on ‘Dhanteras’. ‘Bali Padawa’ and ‘Bhau Beej’ evenings/nights were exceptionally quiet, perhaps due to low traffic on the road. Yes, to some extent ‘Dhan Teras’ and Diwali had loud firecrackers but on the whole, post 10PM, the neighborhood had become very quiet.
But that was not the case everywhere. At different sections of Mumbai, I am told firecrackers were being burnt disregarding either the decibel norms or the 10 PM deadline. Going by the newspaper reports and Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) and NGO Awaaz Foundation observations, the noise levels were definitely perceptibly lower than previous years.
How did this happen?
The foremost to get credit for this is the inclusion of Environment Sciences as a subject in schools from 5th standard. Awareness grows among parents while ‘teaching’ their children and when children do aspire to not pollute the atmosphere with noise or foul air, parents do become wiser and oblige.
Then I would say that the oath the school children and college students take voluntarily not to burst crackers because they cause noise and air pollution and are bad for health. This oath was prepared by Dr YT Oke, the person responsible for getting Noise Pollution Rules coming into existence and propagated through the Marathi Vidnyan Parishad and Association of Medical Consultants, Mumbai. It’s being readily available on this website [See: https://sites.google.com/site/noiserelated/oath-for-students-in-schools-colleges-for-diwali-2010) and has helped matters considerably.
The media cannot be far behind in being given credit as they have been putting forth articles on the subject in advance of not only Diwali, but also ‘Dussehra’ and ‘Ganapati’ festivals when in large proportion loudspeakers were being used, even beyond the 10pm deadline or 12 midnight on specified dates.
Thus awareness on harmful effects of bursting of firecrackers has led to significant reduction in overall noise and air pollution, especially people’s adherence to the time deadline.
Without enforcement, violators, however small in number, continue to be daring and violate the rule of law. This leads others to also ignore the rule. Therefore it is of utmost importance that the public is informed of the Rule of Law and that Government would take stern measures against violators.
However, in a stakeholders’ meeting convened by the Department of Environment of Government of Maharashtra a fortnight before last year’s Diwali (2010), the Government took a soft stand on manufacturers’ plea that they were not aware of restrictions of a firecracker’s noise-emitting levels and that they were to put down the noise levels of a firecracker on the package. The government had also not placed any advertisements in the newspapers warning public of stern action against violators of noise rules. Since the awareness campaign has been going on over the years, very strongly from 2003, it is a fallacy that the firecracker manufacturers and retailers did not know about the limits of noise a cracker could emanate. I did mention these in the meeting and followed it up with an email to all concerned. The result is that Government of Maharashtra, through different channels of communication, including SMS like “Let us take pledge to avoid crackers, avoid air & noise pollution” by the MPCB, conveyed the importance of avoiding lighting firecrackers. The Minister of Environment participated in a TV debate on the subject with the Deputy Environment Minister making media statements that violators would be punished, including imprisoned if so necessitated. Police stated that they would be monitoring the 10 PM deadline strictly. One of the English newspapers in fact went on a campaign “VOLUME KAM KAR” for over ten days, while other news papers did this little less vigorously. Several TV channels held a debate on the subject.
All these efforts could be attributed to have contributed to the significant drop in noise and air pollution. For the coming year, the Environment Department should, in collaboration with the Tamil Nadu Government and the firecracker manufacturer’s association and retailer’s association ensure that (a) no child is employed with these hazardous manufactures and (b) do not manufacture firecrackers that make noise exceeding the specified limits and also get them printed on the labels.
MPCB must also identify those hand-held firecrackers that emit smoke in concentration that is harmful, especially to children. The health department must loudly emphasise the harm noise and smoke causes to infants and to the newborn; many parents in their enthusiasm do not realise this. In fact protection of infants from noise must be told to every parent at every time of childbirth.
With growing awareness, I am optimistic that we shall celebrate future festivals with peace and joy; but it is still no time to stop efforts to contain noise and air pollution.
[Sudhir Badami is a civil engineer and transportation analyst. He is on the Government of Maharashtra's Steering Committee on Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) for Mumbai and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority's (MMRDA) technical advisory committee on BRTS for Mumbai. He is also member of the Research & MIS Committee of Unified Mumbai Metropolitan Transport Authority (UMMTA). He was a member of the Bombay High Court-appointed erstwhile Road Monitoring Committee (2006-07). He has been an active campaigner against noise pollution for over a decade and he is a strong believer in a functioning democracy. He can be contacted on email at [email protected].]