The North-Eastern States of India are beautiful. Be it the valleys of Assam or the hills of Meghalaya, all eight states of the North East have immense natural resources.

That said, the entire region serves as an abundant source of renewable and non-renewable energy such as hydel power and solar energy among others, and also accounts for more than 18% of India’s reserve of crude oil and natural gas. According to a survey on 31st March 2017, the state of Assam alone has a natural gas reserve of 158.57 billion cubic metres - the largest in the country.

In spite of it all, many villages and urban areas of the North East face a shortage of power and transportation facilities due to lack of infrastructure development. Inhabitants still rely on conventional sources of fuel such as diesel and petrol for their power needs, which in turn harm the environment.

Renewable energy and its challenges

While the world may be aiming at making the shift to renewable energy as a solution in the long run, it is expensive and requires infrastructural planning which in-turn is time-intensive, especially in regions with a complicated terrain such as the North East. Thus, a short-term solution would be to efficiently utilise existing resources such as Compressed Natural Gas (CNG).

CNG pollutes less and is not as harmful a source of energy as other non-renewable sources. It can be used widely in public transportation and other domestic functions. However, the reason why CNG is not used abundantly in areas outside the capital region is the inadequate transportation and storage facilities available for the purpose. In the case of North East, this problem is eliminated due to immediate access to both.

Of solutions and political will

Through the ambitious ‘Hydrocarbon Vision 2030 for North East India’, the Central Government funded Indradhanush Gas Grid Ltd, a vehicle that will lay a 1,656 kms long gas pipeline to connect all the eight North-Eastern states. The target is to double the oil and gas production and improve the accessibility of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) and Petroleum, Oil and Lubricant (POL) products in the North-eastern region. They have also decided to set up four new city gas grid networks and various other infrastructure projects such as doubling highway networks and expanding the existing oil refineries just like in the Numaligarh refinery in Assam. This will minimise the logistical cost of using CNG, thereby promoting its increased utilisation in various sectors. An advantage to using CNG is also that it is cheaper than other fuels.

As of now, most of the trains in our country are either diesel-powered or run on electricity. Diesel-Electric Multiple Units (DEMU) are also seen, but CNG is sparsely used. The Indian Railways have launched only one train (Rewari to Rohtak) that operates completely on CNG so far.

The way ahead

In mountainous regions where it is not feasible to lay electric cables, CNG could play a key role in powering such train engines. In 2017, the then Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu had launched ‘Mission 41k’, whose aim was to save energy and reduce cost by employing modern tech and equipment. He had stated that the Railways spends around ₹17, 500 crore each year on diesel while 18% of the carrier’s operational expenses are accounted towards fuel cost including electricity, proving that a shift to CNG will help reduce the expenditure on fuel and maintenance cost.

In the short run, CNG is the need of the hour, and the North East can help.