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Gas-guzzling cars devastating our cities

An important item in the free trade agreement being negotiated between India and the European Union is automobiles. The EU is pressing for a reduction in the customs duty on fully built cars imported into India from 60 per cent to under 30 per cent. The Indian government is reportedly caving in. This is opposed by the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers, a powerful lobby that has done much to promote cars.

However the issue is resolved, state policy will continue to support the growing use of cars in India. Domestic car sales have doubled over five years. Car manufacturing is one of India’s fastest-growing industries, whose expansion is driven by the consumerism of India’s burgeoning upper-middle class and its elitist notions of lifestyle, individual mobility, and glamour of automobiles.

The middle class’s automobile addiction is likely to ensure that the current industry slowdown, the first in a decade, will be transient and brief. The present six per cent fall in passenger car sales – and presumably, in toxic emissions – has been more than made up by a dizzying 52 per cent rise in the sales of utility vehicles, mostly sport-utility vehicles (SUVs).

SUVs, proliferating in every Indian city, are gas-guzzling, road-hogging monsters which individually have the same emissions as a truck. Since they typically burn diesel, their emissions are even more harmful than those from petrol vehicles, including finer respirable suspended particulate matter (RSPM) and unburnt hydrocarbons, with dreadful health effects. India is now the world’s second fastest-growing SUV market despite being one of its poorest countries.

The government’s fatal error in pricing diesel artificially much lower than petrol – although the two cost the same to produce – means that a huge 55 percent of all cars sold use diesel, up from 32 per cent in 2006 and under

10 per cent in 2002. Thanks to this policy, and a runaway proliferation of private vehicles, concentrations of air pollutants, especially RSPM and oxides of nitrogen and sulphur, and have risen to dangerous levels in most cities. Vehicular emissions account for 60 per cent-plus of urban India’s air-pollutant burden.

Pollutant levels in 188 of the 190 cities surveyed by the Central Pollution Control Board are well above the prescribed standards. The two sole exceptions are Malappuram in Kerala and Madurai in Tamil Nadu.

Only one metropolis (Delhi) figures among India’s five most polluted cities which have RSPM levels at least four times higher than the 60-microgramme norm; the others are Gwalior, West Singhbhum, Ghaziabad, and Raipur. Similarly, smaller cities like Howrah (West Bengal), Badlapur (a Mumbai suburb), Jamshedpur (Jharkhand) and Marmagao (Goa) lead in sulphur and nitrogen oxide pollution.

Delhi switched from diesel/petrol to compressed natural gas in public buses, taxis and autorickshaws in 2002. But rampant vehicle growth has reversed the gains from this. With RSPM recording 261 microgrammes, Delhi has retrogressed to levels worse than in the pre-CNG days.

Urban India is literally choking on air pollution, which is spreading illness and disease. More than 30 per cent of children in Indian cities suffer from respiratory allergies, reduced lung function and other disorders.  

Many common air pollutants cause cancer. In general, air pollution causes or aggravates several health disorders and problems, including diabetes, heart disease and hypertension. Add to this disability-related loss of work and income, increased stress, aesthetic disfigurement caused by flyovers and car parks, 1,30,000 yearly road-accident deaths, and growing insecurity for pedestrians and users of non-mechanised transport such as bicycles – and the terrible impact of motorisation becomes obvious.

Cars are the greatest culprit. They parasitically occupy enormous road-space even when stationary. Typically, they carry two persons, but hog one-third as much space as a bus ferrying 40 to 60 people. Cars account for under 10 per cent of all commuter trips in most Indian cities, but use three-fourths of road-space. In many cities (e.g., Delhi), bicycles account for a similar proportion of trips but get virtually no space and face serious risks.

Free use of public space to park private cars is one of India’s biggest scandals. If car-owners were made to pay market-based rent for the prime space they grab in central business districts like Nariman Point or Connaught Place – where land values run into lakhs of rupees per square foot – many would simply stop using their vehicles. Yet, most cities charge laughably low parking fees. In residential areas, car-owners have brazenly privatised roads, even pavements. Private cars are heavily parasitical upon society in other ways too. A huge share of urban infrastructure spending by public authorities goes into widening roads or building bridges and flyovers – for automobile use. This is true of spending under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission in 60 Indian cities. Cars have slowed down traffic, especially public buses, by 30 to 50 per cent in most cities, thus adding to loss of precious social time. Nothing could be more unjust.

Cars have increasingly become an elite cult, a form of consumerist ostentation, and a symbol of speed and power with which to inspire awe and fear among people using other means of transport. The Indian middle class is no longer satisfied with small sub-compact vehicles like the Maruti-800, whose sales have tanked. It wants bigger and more luxurious cars with fancy features. It’s the mid-sized sedan segment whose sales are recording the highest growth in India. Cars create a sick social pathology through vulgar display of wealth and raw, macho aggression. They have aggravated inequalities in India’s already super-hierarchical society. The typical Indian car-owner has contempt for the pedestrian or even the two-wheeler driver, whom he will corner and terrorise as much as possible. He lacks even token respect for pedestrian rights or zebra crossings. All this foments a culture of callousness and misanthropy. This pathology is superbly described and analysed by senior journalist-activist Vidyadhar Date in Traffic in the Era of Climate Change (Kalpaz).

Many industrially developed societies now regret that they allowed rampant motorisation. They are discouraging cars by banning their use in city centres, taxing them more heavily, and levying high parking fees and congestion charges (e.g. 8 pounds per entry into central London). They are also promoting public transport and reserving lanes for buses and bicycles. Many European cities have seen movements to establish non-motorists’ rights and reclaim roads equitably for people.

 Even Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou limit and auction the car licence plates issued each year. Singapore won’t let you buy a car unless you pay through your nose and own your parking space. You can only drive your car on alternate days of the week depending on the odd/even number on the plate.

We desperately need similar measures – besides a blanket ban on SUVs and diesel-fuelled cars. We must aggressively promote cleaner fuels and enforce pollution control checks. Above all, we need affordable, safe, efficient public transport. Contrary to middle class belief, the solution doesn’t lie in Metro rail, which is far too expensive to construct especially in already built-up areas.  

The solution lies in using existing city roads through cost-efficient Bus Rapid Transit, electric trolley-buses and promoting cycling and walking. This means reorganising city life, minimising commuting, and creating exchange hubs and pedestrian plazas. (IPA)
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