Disasters galore

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Thursday 11 June 2015

british politicians are facing one disaster after another but the way they are facing them should be a lesson for the tribe that exists in India.

As in our country, the high fuel prices have become a source of major contention and with fuel blockades being threatened there is panic buying and retail outlets are running out of fuel. The protesters consisting of truckers and farmers who have come under the banner of People's Fuel Lobby are demanding a tax cut in fuel taxes. Indeed the potential for reducing fuel prices through tax cuts is enormous.

Unleaded petrol costs 80.6 pence (Rs 56.4) per litre of which 75.4 per cent is made up of taxes. But chancellor Gordon Brown, the country's finance minister, has refused to buckle under the pressure even though the government is expected to have a budget surplus of nearly 20 billion by March 31, 2001, instead of the government's forecast of about 5.5 billion.

The chancellor does not want to squander this money in favour of short-term political considerations. He wants to protect the long-term economic interests of the country and spend it on worthier causes like the development of the 'inner cities' -- the British term for its urban slums.

Though the chancellor is yet to make a statement himself, the papers have been reporting the sops that he is likely to offer. Firstly, he is prepared to freeze any further fuel tax increases during 2000-2001, which will cost the government 600 million and if fuel prices do not go down, as he expects them to, then he is prepared to commit himself to a fuel tax freeze for 2001-2002 as well.

In addition, he is prepared to reduce the price of low-sulphur petrol by one pence to encourage petrol companies to produce more of this 'green fuel' and reduce air pollution. Low sulphur diesel is already three pence cheaper than ordinary diesel. According to an European Union directive, all retail outlets are to offer low sulphur petrol by March 2003. As of now less than one thousand of Britain's 12,500 outlets offer it.

Brown also plan to offer reductions in the hefty road tax for truckers and introduce a complex vehicle excise duty, which will reward those operators who switch to lorries that do less damage to the roads and the environment. And in order to retain their competitiveness in the unified European market, foreign haulers will be taxed sufficiently at the point of entry. Nobody knows as of now whether all this will take the wind out of the protesters. Only time will tell.

The Conservatives in the opposition are against the proposal to freeze fuel taxes. But environmental groups are meeting the protesters to convince them that high fuel prices are not bad in order to deal with environmental problems like air pollution and global warming.

Even as the fuel tax protest has hit the headlines, the incessant rains which have led to unprecedented floods in November have brought global warming and environmental mismanagement of the floodplains to the fore. The British rarely ever see the kind of rain that we get in India whereas the British themselves put it, 'it rains cats and dogs'. It has rained continuously for 40 days now and the resulting floods are the worst ever in 50 years. Over 40 severe flood warnings have been issued. Twelve people have died already and thousands have been rendered homeless.

The Prince of Wales has blamed the floods on "humankind's arrogance" towards nature, while the country's prime minister, Tony Blair, has called for a recognition of the effects of climate change caused by carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles and industries. "We can no longer avoid facing up to this on an international level," Blair told British Broadcasting Corporation (bbc ) radio.

The British newspapers have blamed local governments for ignoring ground realities. The government has offered grants to raise embankments, build new sluices and strengthen river banks. But local councils have ignored these costs because they would have to be returned and allowed constant encroachment of the floodplains by companies and householders.

An angry edit in The Times (London) says, "If they ignore the advice to strengthen river banks, if they disregard floodplain maps or insist on development that puts profit before prudence, there is no reason why the taxpayer should pay for their folly. Where the danger of flooding is frequent, there should be a complete ban on housing or industrial building; where the risk is slight but the long-term outlook uncertain, developers should be responsible both for flood defences and for any damage caused by their negligence."

Somebody should make this mandatory for the likes of Laloo Yadav and Prafulla Mahanta who have constantly led people to believe that embankments protect them, have allowed encroachments of the floodplains, and whenever there is a crisis, bleated for grants from the Centre. Even Andhra Pradesh's net savvy chief minister Chandrababu Naidu does the same and allows Hyderabad to go under water. As one of the British papers put it, 'Everybody loves a good flood'.

-- Anil Agarwal

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