Terror in the streets

Published: Friday 30 June 1995

Eco-terrorists are for real. All over the world the establishment derisively uses the term to describe zealous environmental activists and groups on the fringe. For much of May, however, the term could easily apply to the establishment itself -- in this case, the Central government and the government of Delhi, when they let loose with anti-pollution can(n)ons against hapless motorists in the Capital. As is true of any other terrorist outrage, the victims hardly deserved the punishment meted out.

The most striking feature of the campaign was that it made motor-owners the singular target, giving them a mere a fortnight's time to acquire a no-pollution certificate, failing which they were liable for a Rs 1,000 fine. Thousands of motorists were made to forget their domestic, business and professional commitments and wait for hours in long queues for their vehicles to be tested. The no-pollution certificates received by motorists are valid only for 3 months after which they have to come back for renewal. The anti-pollution lobby has already begun to ask for more testing points on the plea that the existing capabilities allowed them to fine only a small percentage of those the polluting vehicles. Simply because Delhi has more than 2 million vehicles, the gleeful government officials are planning to keep multiplying the count of the culpable. Nowhere in the world have programmes to curb vehicular pollution been a matter of such permits and licenses.

Vehicular pollution must be curbed. But any viable programme must be premised on a multi-faceted assumption of responsibility on the part of the various planning and executive agencies and industry along with the public. Some sober officials acknowledge that the single-mindedness of last month's effort would not even make a minuscule difference to the 1,050 tonnes of pollutants released every day in the form of auto-exhaust.

If the problem is to be tackled seriously, 1 area of action would be civic programmes that make driving less necessary and less poisonous. Central business districts, around which most Indian cities have grown, must be decongested by developing several alternative points of work. Mass transit systems must be constantly upgraded in terms of technology and carrying capacity. Traffic management principles must be scientifically revised to prevent sharp speed changes. Then these measures must be combined with sustained public campaigns on the hazards of vehicular pollution. Transport planners in city administrations as well as in the higher levels of government can hardly claim ignorance on any of these counts. Yet, they are guilty of omission or sloppy commission in each area.

This irresponsibility is compounded by a lack of initiative to curb pollution at the source itself. It is common knowledge that Indian motor owners use their vehicles for long service lives. Yet there has been hardly any attempt to pressurise or persuade motor manufacturers to produce machines that pollute less even within the recommended life periods. Barring a few exceptions, outdated and obsolete engine designs and equipment continue to be callously passed on to purchasers. The most flagrant denial of an anti-pollution ethic is provided by the auto-industries' persistence with the highly polluting 2-stroke engines for scooters and motorcycles which are the most popular form of auto-transport in India today. There are an estimated 8.2 million scooters and motorcycles in the 8 largest Indian cities alone, and 3,000 new pieces are sold daily in those cities. Fresh licenses for their manufacture are also easily granted.

There was just no case to line up the motor owners alone. Forced to do so in Delhi, they resisted in their own way. They realised the checks to be a perfunctory affair which could be shortened even more for a bribe. Validity certificates for a subsequent clearance are already available in advance on the black market. This just shows that environmental schemes, even when aboveboard, can be driven underground by official hamhandedness.

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