As expected, it took just four days for the government to buckle under the pressure of petroleum dealers who closed down all 1,450 gas stations across the country this week.
The government had decided to stop allowing gas stations to sell kerosene, saying it was too tempting for them not to mix subsidised kerosene with diesel and petrol. It told gas stations to keep their kerosene depots outside a one km radius from their gas stations. On Wednesday, the government agreed to give the gas dealers six months to comply with the regulation.
The gas dealers have bought time, and they only got a slap on the wrist for threatening public health by the widespread adulteration of fuel. One spot check by this paper two years ago revealed that up to 45-50 percent of the diesel and petrol in Kathmandu's gas stations were mixed with kerosene.
Overwhelming public opposition to the strike and lobbying by the consumers' associations were not enough to bolster the government's capacity to resist the dealers. However, the government says it will use the six months to conduct a probe on gas stations selling adulterated petrol.
"Now it's all up to the consumers, they have to be empowered," says Sri Krishna Shrestha, president of Pro-Public, an organisation campaigning actively against adulteration. Many feel the petroleum mafia is so strong, its tentacles go so high up in the Nepal Oil Corporation and the bureaucracy, that the government can't really challenge it.
But an official from the Department of Commerce put up a brave face, telling us: "We are firm in implementing our decision and the government will take severe measures as and when appropriate." The government had reportedly decided that, had the strike continued, it would have either forced the gas stations to open or got the Nepal Oil Corporation to scrap their dealership licenses.
When the petrol strike started earlier this week, people thought this was again about prices. It wasn't. Essentially, it was about one party that wanted to keep on adulterating fuel and pocketing the profit.
The government decided to implement a task force recommendation to relocate kerosene pumps far from the petrol stations. It's not that the mixture of kerosene in petrol takes place right in the petrol station, but the hope was that the problem would reduce to some extent. Actually, adulteration starts from the storage point in Amlekhgunj depot and there is a large network involved in this crime (Nepali Times #19, 'Nepal Oil Corruption').
The mood on the street was turning ugly against the gas dealers. "The government finally acted, we support it, this crime has to stop," said Ramesh Thapa, who had queued up two hours in Pulchok. "They can't bully the government and harass the people anymore. They should be punished!" shouted a visibly-upset Sita Lama on a mo-ped who was late for work because she had already waited an hour for gas.
These voices were magnified in public discussions on FM stations like Sagarmatha where the gas dealers and the government came under a sustained barrage of criticism for being unable to stop adulteration. Their message was simple: don't let the petrol mafia get away this time.
There has been evidence that almost 60 percent of the petrol stations around the country are selling adulterated petrol and this has been going on for years. Following an investigative report by this publication and Himal Khabarpatrika in 2000, the government set up a probe committee under Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Supplies. Only a handful of gas stations who openly admitted adulteration were ever penalised.
Now, the gas stations have bought time. The government will be involved in the same kind of study conducted five months ago by the probe committee which revealed that 60 percent of gas stations were selling adulterated fuel. For another six months, the Nepali public will be using diluted diesel and petrol and breathing its carcinogenic fumes.
Kerosene in petrol and diesel does not burn completely and releases cancer-causing hydrocarbons, nitrous oxides and carbon monoxide instead of the less-harmful carbon dioxide. Besides destroying engines, it also harms human lungs. Kerosene destroys the catalytic converter, allowing benzene additives in the petrol to escape into the atmosphere. Benzene is a known cancer-causing gas.
Asthma is on the rise in Kathmandu, caused mainly by the soot particulates in the air from vehicle exhausts burning adulterated fuels. Another health problem is hypoxia, which is caused by lack of oxygen in the blood and is related to excessive carbon monoxide in the air, again caused by incomplete combustion. Hypoxia leads to fatigue and dizziness and is the cause of numerous traffic accidents.
Valley vehicles are increasing at 13 percent a year, and most vehicles are poorly maintained and use low quality fuel. The more the government delays taking extreme measures to reduce adulteration, the more public health is at risk. Children suffer the most from respiratory problems. A World Bank study in 1995 showed Kathmandu's air pollution even then caused almost 5,000 cases of bronchitis in children and 20,000 cases of asthma per year. At the rate of vehicle growth, the situation must be much worse now. In monetary terms, this impact causes the loss of approximately Rs 200,000,000 per year.
Many consumers have lost their faith in the government ever resolving the problem because it is hand-in-glove with the petroleum mafia. They say giving the gas stations another six months already smacks of corruption. Even moving kerosene supply one km away from gas stations is not the answer. "That is just a temporary solution, we must look at subsidies, and improve monitoring and quality control," says Pro-Public's Shrestha.