The Union government must make it binding on oil companies to raise the flashpoint of diesel to safer levels to prevent loss of human lives in tragedies such as the recent one in Mahabubnagar, Andhra Pradesh, a consumer action group demanded on Tuesday.

In the accident, 45 persons were burnt alive when the fuel tank of a bus went up in flames in the impact of a collision.

Addressing a press conference, members of CONCERT Trust (Centre for Consumer Education, Research, Teaching, Training and Testing), said while many developed nations fixed higher flashpoints – the lowest temperature at which enough fluid can evaporate to become a combustible concentration – for transportation fuel, the tipping point for a mainstream fuel like diesel in India was only 35 degrees C.

“The only reason why there is no action on this front in spite of frequent appeals is because oil companies are unwilling to change their refinery stage processes,” said R. Desikan, founder-trustee of CONCERT and the Consumers Association of India (CAI).

In a country like India where the average ambient temperatures are in the 30-40 degree C range for most of the year, it is verily unsafe to fix the flashpoint of automotive diesel at 35 degree C where in some other countries with colder climes it was as high as 65 degrees C, said N. Gopalaswami, trustee and former Chief Election Commissioner of India.

According to CONCERT, experiments led by the Automobile Research Association of India, Pune, clearly established that a decrease in a fuel constituent like naphtha had a significant effect on the flashpoint of diesel. High naphtha fractions in low sulphur diesel increase conductivity and can be a matter of concern.

In fact, diesel fuels in this country been shown by the ARAI study to have a ‘Lambda’ value (air to fuel vapour ratio) that makes them vulnerable to explosion in presence of ignition source when two vehicles collide. Pointing out that none of the oil companies was interested in investing in putting these findings to test at their refinery facilities, G. Rajan, CAI secretary general, said it appeared that they were against a higher flashpoint for diesel.

Mr. Desikan also wondered why the government differentiated pricing of petrol and diesel as the gate-price of all petroleum by-products was the same in a country like the UK one penny was all the difference between a gallon of petrol and a gallon of diesel.

CONCERT will also take up with Volvo company the jamming of the central locking system of the burning bus in Mahabubnagar that prevented passengers from escaping to safety.

R. Santhanam, former additional Chief Secretary and Concert trustee, pointed to the dearth of vehicle testing centres to periodically assess road-worthiness of vehicles, especially public transport buses. Concert is ready to set up a model testing centre that can be replicated elsewhere in Tamil Nadu which has the highest accident rate in the country, he said.

According to the activists, Pankaj Agarwal, Union Secretary, Consumer Affairs, had assured them that CONCERT’s concept note and legislation framework for constituting a Consumer Products and Services Safety Authority mooted in 2005 would be re-considered.