By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Environmentalists cautiously welcomed an energy-saving initiative by India's oil minister in which he and all his ministry workers will take public transport every Wednesday, while warning the idea should not turn into a "gimmick".
Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister Veerappa Moily ditched his government car on Wednesday morning and took a crammed underground train from his home to his office in central New Delhi, saying he planned to do the same every week to save energy and fuel costs.
"This is a good gesture, but the intent of it must not get reduced to a gimmick. It should catalyse significant change in the commuting practices in the city," said the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a leading Delhi-based think-tank, in a statement.
"Mr Moily, make public transport a serious business for all - the rich and the poor - to save fuel, pollution and human lives," it urged.
Surrounded by television news cameras in a crammed train carriage, Moily told journalists that the initiative is part of a fuel conservation drive to save India $5 billion on its oil import bill, which is already close to 7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).
The move - if all oil ministry employees stick to it - would save about 600 litres of petrol and diesel, valued at 40,000 rupees each day, he said.
Other measures suggested by Moily to cut fuel consumption include staggered office hours for government employees and encouraging the use of bicycles for short distances.
But while the minister has stressed the benefits in terms of lower financial costs, environmentalists also emphasise the gains of reducing greenhouse gases and pollution levels, but only if public transport is drastically improved and heavily promoted.
The transport sector was responsible for around 13 percent of the country's total greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2010 report by the environment ministry.
"The ministry of environment and forests inventory shows that the transportation sector is the fourth largest emitter of heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions in India," said Anumita Roychowdhury, CSE's executive director-research and advocacy. "In Delhi, the transport sector is responsible for close to half of all carbon dioxide emissions."