Competitive populism

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Saturday 28 February 1998

The manner in which the Congress- i has used the forthcoming elections to curry favour with autorickshaw owners by organising them to oppose the bjp -led Delhi government's proposal to stop all commercial vehicles which are 15 years old or more from April 1, 1998 shows that India's politicians will stoop to any depths to get votes. Jag Pravesh Chandra, leader of Congress- i's Delhi unit, told a public meeting in November 1996 organised by the Centre for Science and Environment that pollution in Delhi is reaching a stage that its inhabitants have no choice but to flee the city. As an old immigrant to the city, he felt deeply pained by its future prospects.

But the same gentleman is today organising autorickshaw owners to oppose the ban in order to get votes. He says he wants pollution control with a 'human face'. And his 'human face' means that to save the jobs of a few thousand people, the health of over ten million people should be put at risk

The ruling bjp , too, which is hoping to provide a new and stable government to the country, has failed to show any spunk. Under pressure from the Con-gress- i as well as its own cadres, the bjp has caved in by saying that all old vehicles will be subject to strict fitness tests.

Therefore, if the people of Delhi have any interest in saving their city they should neither vote for the bjp nor the Congress- i. The big problem, however, is that none of us have much of a choice.

The public knows well what fitness tests mean. Corruption will ensure that the polluters will be allowed to keep on plying their dirty vehicles on Delhi's polluted roads. In any case, even if an autorickshaw owner brings a fine-tuned vehicle for a test nothing stops him from changing the air-fuel ratio. A lean air-fuel ratio, which is necessary to pass an inspection test, means that a vehicle tends to stall when idling and create difficulties in getting away quickly at a busy interaction. The incentive to go back to the old adjustments will, therefore, be high. And since a fitness certificate would have already been obtained, nothing would hurt the owner to do so.

According to B S Murthy, former professor at iit , Chennai, an inspection/maintenance scheme has an inherent potential to "corrupt both the enforcing agencies and the public". Experience in the us where such inspection/maintenance schemes have been introduced has also shown that corruption has become a big temptation

Old vehicles are heavy polluters. While the bjp government in Delhi did not conduct any study to ascertain how the emission levels of vehicles progress with age - which shows how poor the decision-making process in India is - studies abroad have consistently shown that older vehicles are gross polluters.

A British survey revealed that 20 per cent of vehicles produced more emissions than the remaining 80 per cent and 10 per cent of the vehicles produced over 50 per cent of the pollution generated by all the vehicles. The us Environment Protection Authority has also found that 10 per cent to 30 per cent of the vehicles cause the bulk of the pollution. It has also found that 30 per cent of five-year-old cars and 55 per cent of seven-year olds were high polluters.

Just imagine what the situation is in Delhi where as much as 21 per cent of all registered vehicles were, as of 31st March 1997, 15 years or older. Since very few people junk their vehicles in India a large fraction of these vehicles are still plying. Commercial vehicles are worse. Over 42 per cent of all taxis (total: 15,015), 28 per cent of goods vehicles (1,40,922) and 27 per cent of all autorickshaws (80,210) are 15 years or older.

If the bjp government had any sense it would have got a good survey done to find out how many old vehicles are still plying, what proportion of the pollution load is generated by them and how much will be reduced by forcing conversion to new vehicles. And it would have widely publicised this information so that the public was involved and vested interest and petty political leaders could not hold decisions to ransom.

It is financially possible to help out poor vehicle owners to make the change-over. According to Delhi government statistics, there were about 24,000 auto-rickshaws in mid-1983. Let us assume that all of these are still on the roads even though transport officials and autorickshaw union officials claim that only 60,000 of the registered 80,000 autorickshaws are plying on the roads today. A new autorickshaw costs Rs 42,000. Therefore, if the government were to provide a one-time subsidy of as much as 50 per cent for the switchover, to soften the blow for those hit the first time, the total money needed is Rs 50.4 crore. In 1996-97, 72,000 new cars, and 1,34,793 new scooters and motorcycles were registered in Delhi. These vehicles are charged a one-time road tax. If the tax for cars is increased by Rs 2,000 and for scooters by Rs 1,000, the government will net in two years Rs 56 crore. By getting the central government to waive off excise duty (12.8 per cent of the retail price) and purchasing directly from the manufacturer to avoid the dealer's margin, the government can find the money with just one year's increase in road taxes.

Delhi's politicians could have therefore easily found a way out without pitting livelihoods against pollution. But we today have mindless politicians who have no capacity to govern and in their mindlessness rake up emotions by turning everything into a rich versus poor issue. As Madhu Dandavate once put it to me, "the biggest obstacle in the way of good governance is the 'competitive populism' of our politicians".

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