Slow train coming

Published: Saturday 15 November 2008

The real picture of the economy says, be grounded

THE aviation industry in India has been hit directly by the rising fuel price and a slump economy. The Times of India reported there were 18.5 per cent fewer flyers this September compared to last September. It is obvious that all the private airlines that mushroomed over the past few years are in the worst kind of turbulence. Middle class Indians, who were forced to become high flyers, have now started queuing up for slower trains.

Slow seems to be the flavour of the day. Dr Manmohan Singh, eminent professor of growth, told Parliament that the Indian economy would slow down. But our leaders are yet to learn from experience. They are still trying to administer age-old steroids, like tax cuts and subsidies, to an industry addicted to quick fixes. No questions are asked whether the industry deserves to enjoy state patronage.

If global political class were wise, they would not have pampered an inefficient mode of transport like aviation for so long. It is widely known that today's turbo-jet passenger aircraft are as inefficient as they were in the era of last piston-engine aircraft. A 2006 publication on aviation industry and climate change by Climate Action Network Europe and Transport & Environment strongly objected to the subsidy the industry received for all the facets of its operations, ranging from aircraft manufacturing to duty-free shops in the airports. The report estimated aviation industry's contribution to climate change was between four per cent and nine per cent while it accounted for only 10 per cent of the globe's gdp and a mere 0.1 per cent of its employment. Even then our ministers cannot stop bemoaning the loss of jobs caused by the slump in the Indian aviation sector.

There are larger questions too. Even if we assume that the aviation industry is as energy efficient as other surface transport modes, it made faster travel so easily possible that demand for avoidable long distance travel increased worldwide fuelling higher carbon emission. The industry remains unsustainable both environmentally and financially. Governments must not hesitate to impose harsh taxes on this industry as its users are predominantly rich and also because taxes that pinch the aviation sector do not hurt the poor.

Let us hope that the current financial crisis forces us to rethink the way we live. A slow train is what nature will allow us. It is time we heeded this fundamental. Otherwise a larger danger awaits us. The artificial boom in aviation called for large-scale privatization of services. If they fail, the government may have to ask the millions of bicycle riders of this country to bail them out.

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