One step forward, two steps back

The initial phase of UPA II witnessed prolific rule making, but this was not followed up with responsible governance

By Anumita Roychowdhury
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

The initial phase of UPA II witnessed prolific rule making, but this was not followed by responsible governance

The United Progressive Alliance II (UPA II) and the Nano car arrived together in 2009. The frenzy of the new electoral win and the Nano, symbolising aspiration, made many smug. No one was in a mood then to think if cheap cars could put motorization on a spin, choke cities, worsen public health or guzzle more fuel. But for us, the issue was not the small, cheap, big, or expensive cars, but ALL cars – the dinosaurs aggravating pollution, congestion and climate mayhem. The larger question was whether the car was helping urban mobility and at what price. The new government had to give us an answer and a promise.

Five years later, as the UPA II takes stock of its green credentials today--the World Environment day--the last of this current regime, there are more questions than answers. 

We did hear a `promise` in 2009, despite the economic downturn. When globally, the major car companies were lining up for bailouts, forcing Western governments to inject more money to increase car dependency, the UPA-II funded public transport buses as part of the financial stimulus plan. This move tied with a string of public transport reforms, including waiver of taxes on public transport, increased taxes on cars, promise to transform mobility patterns and reduce emissions in the years to come. 

We said `Amen` to a good omen in the initial phase of UPA II that witnessed prolific rule making. In quick succession, the government framed the National Climate Action Plan and the habitat standards for transport. Tools, advisories and guidance documents followed to help city governments with transportation reforms. 

The feel good factor evaporated soon. As the UPA II’s tenure matured we did see a spate of rules, but not responsible governance. It was not the politics of the common good, but conservative politics that failed to resolve the conflict between economic growth, equity and the rationality of sustainability. In defence of growth, the industry and its short term gains, it could bend science, and not account for health and environmental costs of growth.

This is so clear in its failure to make the car industry accept and implement fuel economy standards. Today, India is the only vehicle producing region in the world that has failed to get these crucial fuel saving measures.

This helplessness of the government to set the regulatory terms for the industry is scary. In the case of fuel economy standards it could not even uphold the sanctity of the rule-making process. Even after the public consultation and final approval from the prime minister, the recalcitrant ministries have allowed the approved standards to be reopened and renegotiated unilaterally with the car industry in sheer conflict of interest.

Clearly, in the areas where the government has kept the decision making opaque, non-participatory and partisan, it has found it hard to push decisions. It could not leverage the democratic process to rally public support to offset lobby pressures. Similar fate awaits the emissions standards roadmap. The `Nelson’s eye syndrome’ gives license to the vehicle industry to race to the bottom to compete on costs. Regulators do not demand cutting edge regulations to guide the market. 

This has blocked not only industry-related environmental decisions but also impeded maturing of governance tools in the country. By now, India should have moved ahead on science-based air quality management and green accounting systems and go much beyond the routine command and control approaches. Sustainable development demands this transition. But this has not happened.

Instead, air quality management has fallen victim to bad science and damaging politics. This is grossly evident in the way the conclusions were drawn from the source apportionment studies in six cities mandated by the earlier Auto Fuel Policy to chart the emissions standards roadmap.  The auto industry and the oil companies are using this study to argue that vehicles are not the problem, and diesel vehicles even less so to keep the roadmap lenient and to protect vehicles from harsher regulatory and fiscal measures.

This has set a dangerous trend. This is making industry more resistant to time-bound and effective commitments on environmental performance. Worse, this has further eroded the negotiating power of the regulator to push for better environmental performance. 
Regaining bargaining power vis-a-vis industry is not easy as we have seen in the repeated aborted efforts of the government to curtail dieselization of cars with fiscal measures. It took five years for a half-hearted increase in taxes on SUVs. Only after protracted negotiations, and finally fenced by a stronger public opinion, the government could muster courage to deregulate diesel prices. But even in that it resorted to a hasty increase for bulk buyers, stifling public transport buses, and, a nominal and slow increase at the retail end to benefit the cars.

UPA II would have us believe that they follow laws and rules and, therefore, have done their bit. But the rules of the game remain weak. Strictly playing by the rules is not same as owning responsibility for the state of our air, health and mobility crisis. Only laws--and in this case weak laws--don’t make good governance.

This makes the mobility story more complicated. The UPA II regime had an advantage in its legacy of the National Urban Transport Policy of 2006 based on the principles of sustainable mobility to set the terms of action in states. The policy discussion on transportation reforms has certainly been more open, transparent that created space for a large number of stakeholders to participate with good results. The language of the policy documents have certainly changed to take on board the right principles. Bus, walk and cycle reforms, and car restraint measures including congestion pricing, parking policy, and tax measures are certainly on the agenda.

This wish list of reforms, however, is still very consultant-led and not rooted in the empowered and participatory decision making at the city level. This slows down real action and fails to influence actual investment decisions. In fact, the reform-based national funding in the transport sector has allowed disproportionately high share of funds to be spent on car centric roads and flyovers. Delhi for instance boasts of 66 flyovers but diminished people carrying capacity of roads even as the city is facing nearly doubling of travel trips by 2020.

The ultimate verdict on the state of UPA’s air quality management has come from the latest count of Global Burden of Disease this year. Air pollution has worsened to become the fifth largest killer and 7th in illness burden in India.

Even as I sign off, the tally shows that half of urban Indians breathe air with particulate levels that exceed the permissible limit. One third lives in critically polluted areas. Since the UPA I days, cities with low level of pollution have fallen from 10 to 2 and the number of critically polluted cities has increased from 49 to 89 cities.

Ironically, the UPA II regime had started its tenure with the environment ministry tightening the air quality standards and by including a much larger number of health-threatening pollutants and air toxins in the regulations. But the promise of meeting these clean air targets by the end of the plan period has not been kept.

Should people expect relief when it is too late, the solutions are farther off and more difficult to achieve, and the chance of the UPA II to remedy the situation is finally lost?

Anumita Roychowdhury is executive director-research and advocacy, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.

  • Effective Public Transport

    Effective Public Transport systems

    Dear all,

    Please kindly look into the following:

    1) Disable friendly, barrier free, water absorbing, slip proof minimum 5 to 10 feet wide footpaths constructed all over India in all towns, cities. Also at one corner of this foot path the very very good trees plants, medicinal plants, etc. and small stone benches, that is those who feel tired to sit that is say for every 50 meters this one stone slab.
    2) The concept of giving fresh license should be made tough, that is the minimum waiting period one two years a must, also all those who get licence should be thoroughly tested that is they have to pass and examination in driving which will be as taugh as the IIT entrance test.
    3) All those who have now licence should submit a written bond that they will strictly follow the traffic rules and other conditions if they fail then there licence will be ceased and they have to apply fresh.
    4) Pollution tax to be implemented that is we have seen in Bangalore and other places though there are three people they have 5 to 10 vehicles, so the more vehicles the familes own the more pollution tax, this tax will be minimum Rs.500 to Rs.5000 per month or year which ever is best, the more the vehicles the pollution tax will be doubles, trebeled.
    5) All educational institutes throughout India the ban on students coming in vehicles, they should come in cycles, walking or public transport.
    6) All educational institutes who offer residential programmes the ban imposed for students to own vehicles and keep it in campus.
    7) The driving licence the age increased to minimum 22 or 25.
    8) Exclusive cycle paths, bus lanes created in all cities and towns
    9) The all organizations including Govt, private they should ensure they provide transport, lease it from operators, etc. 100% all should come in public transport only.
    10) The govt encourage route taxi, route auto, shared auto, shared taxi etc.
    11) The most important thing is the ban of construction of car parking in all new buildings and phased conversion of existing car parking to public toilets, shelter for the poor, etc.
    12) The urgent need is also there to weaken the automobile sector, that is no more new licenses for factories producing cars, bikes, etc. The phased closure of the automobile sector except retaining those for public and other transportation.
    13) Tax exemptions and special grants to organizations, schools , institutes who adopt public transport 100%.
    14) The politicians and others also to use pooled vehicles and transportations.
    15) The existing car parking on roads converted to foot paths or cycle paths
    16) The ban and destroying the crazy and foolish multi storied car parking, when millions have no shelters Govt not waste public money in this useless activity.
    17) Right from school the students encouraged , trained to see they adopt public transport facility, cycling, walking.
    18) Certain streets and roads made only walking and cycling, certain roads only for public transport etc.
    19) Most very very important is hefty fine of Rs.10,000 or more on those people who simply zoom alone in vehicle this is seen in our Bangalore by the It and other people.
    20) Very Important the ban on this new and expensive express ways, etc. which not only destroy agri and forest lands but tempt people to buy vehicles.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Mobility reforms should be

    Mobility reforms should be fair and benefit a lot of people. Thanks for sharing your post.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply