Incompetence at its best

By Anil Agarwal
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

Despite the growing mayhem in city after city and town after town, neither the Central government nor any of the state governments has found a way to deal with the problem even as urban India fast drives itself into an abyss. As a result, it is courts and public-spirited citizens who are taking up the cudgels to get the government to clean up its act. But how far can the courts do anything, when our bureaucrats and politicians, who are supposed to govern, are so corrupt and incompetent?

Let us take a look at the mayhem being created by the automobilisation of our cities. It is well known that a spurt in automobiles leads to pollution, urban sprawl and, if inadequate attention is paid to investments in road and traffic infrastructure, severe congestion on the roads and more pollution. Modern urban life in such a situation becomes hell and as it takes a lot of time to get improved infrastructure in place, the rule of the devil stays for a long time. Urban Indians, thus, have to face a remarkably poor quality of life regardless of who rules -- whether it is the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Let us take a look at the impact of the dramatic growth of automobiles in the capitally polluted city of Delhi -- India's much vaunted capital. It has been known for a long time that Delhi has a bigger stock of motor vehicles than Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata combined. Though Delhi, fortunately, has a much better road infrastructure than these other metros, with the rapid growth of motorised vehicles, even this infrastructure is proving to be inadequate and traffic congestion is increasing by leaps and bounds. If motorisation is to continue at the same rate, Indian cities will have to go the American way -- huge investments will have to be made in flyovers and expressways.

In Delhi, there is even a proposal to build an elevated expressway on the existing Ring Road which circles the city at a cost of several thousand crore. But as everyone knows, these investments inevitably prove to be inadequate over time -- as Mr Peter of Peter's Principle fame would put it, automobiles expand to fill the space available for them.

This will be especially true in a country whose population and urban population are both expanding rapidly, and where a large segment of the urban population is extremely poor. Automobiles will, thus, not only keep on demanding more and more space for themselves but also keep crowding out the space of non-motorised commuters, that is, children and the poor especially. Not surprisingly, over four people are killed on Delhi's roads every day, a large fraction of which is children, pedestrians and cyclists.

Even a transport commissioner with the brain the size of a peanut, whether one belongs to the much-vaunted ias or not, will know that there is a simple answer to this problem. Slow down the growth of private vehicles and increase the growth of public transport. In Delhi, buses occupy less than five per cent of the road space whereas they carry over 50 per cent of the total commuter load.

One simple tool that is in the hands of all transport officials is the road tax. A tool that is hardly used in India or used in a manner that will promote pollution. Let us see how Delhi, with its rapidly growing and already high overload of motorisation, fixes its road tax.

A Maruti 800 will have to pay Rs 3,815 as road tax in Delhi whereas Mumbai (which now charges road as a percentage of the price of the vehicle) will charge Rs 10,382. Chennai, on other hand, will charge an individual owner Rs 8,210 and a company owner Rs 16,240.

In other words, Delhi that should be valuing its road space more, is valuing it dramatically less. More than that, all transport authorities, as they are incapable of collecting taxes, are beginning to charge a one-time tax at the point of sale which means that vehicles don't come in for annual road worthiness tests, a must in all modern traffic management. Therefore road transport authorities are not doing their work.

Now lets see how these taxes are levied with respect to rich and poor commuters. Unlike cars that pay a one-time tax, buses in Delhi pay an annual tax of Rs. 14,325. Buses ply 250 km a day and for 300 days a year which gives a road tax of about 19 paise per km -- a form of transport taken by poorer commuters.

But a car which, say, lasts a lifetime of 15 years and runs some 10,000 km a year ends up paying 2.54 paise per km. Amazing, this is India's bureaucratic socialism.

From the point of view of pollution, all countries charge higher and higher road tax as the vehicles grow older. As a result, Japanese cannot afford to keep a vehicle more than 5-6 years old and then threaten India's fledgling auto industry with second hand car exports.

However in Indian metros the absurd takes place, the road tax goes down as the age of the vehicle increases. In Mumbai, a new vehicle has to pay four per cent of the price of the vehicle; a 1-2 year old 97.2 per cent of the four per cent tax; and, and an over 17 year old only 27.7 per cent of the original four per cent tax.

This is contrary to any traffic management in any sensible country in the world. Surely, how much more stupid can you get?
-- Anil Agarwal

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