Blame It On the Cars!
Is India following an urban transportation policy designed to inflict losses on the exchequer, pollute people, irreparably damage their health, and promote iniquity in resource use? Going by recent developments, it would seem so.
Ford India has just launched a diesel version of its premium Fusion' (ex-Delhi-showroom cost Rs 6,59,000) and announced that like Renault-Nissan, it's also considering making a compact car costing Rs 1,20,000. Such corporate announcements have become routine, especially since the Tatas launched their Rs 1,00,000 car project. What is note-worthy about this one is not just that the low-cost car market is set to boom, but also that a mid-sized (1400 cc) diesel car, priced higher than its petrol original, will be treated as a small car'. It will attract not 24, but 16 per cent, excise duty.
That highlights the irrationality of treating a 1500 cc diesel engine on a par with a 1200 cc petrol engine - although it causes 24 times more pollution (in suspended particulate matter). This aggravates the official folly of pricing diesel 36 per cent lower than petrol.
The government is thus annually subsidising each diesel car, estimates the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), by Rs 12,000 vis-a-vis petrol-driven cars. This works out to a staggering revenue loss of Rs 5,000 crore on diesel cars, which currently command 30 per cent of the automobile market. Their market share is expected to rise to 50 per cent in three years.
Diesel cars are proliferating in India primarily because their owners can recover the price premium in just four years. In Delhi alone, their number has ballooned 425 per cent over a decade and is now annually rising by 17 per cent, or double the rate for petrol cars. Total diesel consumption fell with conversion of buses to CNG during 2000-04.
But it has begun to increase. Poor-quality diesel is making a comeback and threatening to nullify air quality gains.
Delhi phased out 12,000 diesel buses. But even conservatively, estimates CSE, diesel cars are adding the equivalent of SPM emissions from 30,000 diesel buses - not to speak of nitrogen and sulphur oxides. SPM levels are more than twice the permissible limit.
Add to this the fact that the most efficient Indian diesel car is 20-30 per cent less efficient and 50 per cent more polluting than its European counterpart. In India, diesel's contribution to fine particulates (under 2.5 microns) is three to eight times higher than petrol's.
Dieselisation is only one, minor, part of India's automobile boom, which has seen car sales double over five years - a rate 60 per cent higher than GDP growth. Automobiles are being recklessly promoted as symbols of a lifestyle of glamour, luxury, even "freedom".
In reality, automobilisation spells high social costs, resource waste, air pollution, global warming and iniquitous use of road-space. In most Indian cities, cars and two-wheelers hog 60-80 per cent of space, but deliver 15 to 20 per cent of passenger trips. By contrast, buses occupy under 20 per cent of road space, and account for up to 60 per cent of trips.
Cars demand high levels of maintenance, repairs and parking space. They usually occupy prime space - even when unused. Studies show that if car-owners were made to pay the economic rent for parking, many would stop using them. At Mumbai's Nariman Point, the true annual market price of parking space per car would exceed its nominal cost at least 10-fold.
Cars are an extremely inefficient form of transportation. According to a US researcher, the average American spends so much time looking after, parking or repairing his car and stopping at signals, etc, that its average speed is roughly 10-12 kmph.
Above all, they pollute. Automobile emissions of particulate matter, and oxides of nitrogen and sulphur account for more than 60 per cent of the air pollution load in our cities, itself fraught with grievous health damage. Fine particulates contain some 40 known carcinogens. Although health impact studies are inadequate in India, it is estimated that a representative Delhi household would annually earn a benefit of Rs 19,870 and in Kolkata Rs 84,355 from reduced particulates.
This translates into tens of thousands of crores for India.
Thanks to automobilisation, 57 per cent of monitored Indian cities now record critical SPM levels, exceeding one-and-a-half times the permissible standard. So pervasive is the phenomenon that even smaller cities have become its victims. India's top 10 hotspots include Raipur, Kanpur, Alwar and Indore but not a single metropolis.
Runaway automobilisation must be curbed through higher taxation (Indian buses are taxed 2.6 times higher per passenger-kilometre than cars), stiff parking fees, Singapore-style bans on use of odd- and even-numbered cars on alternate days, encouragement of carpools, and extensive creation of pedestrian-only zones.
Above all, we must promote efficient, affordable, non-polluting public transport, as well as bicycles and other non-mechanised modes. If Paris can have 200 km of bicycle paths with 250,000 people using them, so can Delhi, Bangalore or Lucknow. This is not a plea for building expensive metros, which cost two to four times more than dedicated bus lanes or electric buses, but for rational planning which recognises that rampant automobilisation is an ecological, financial and social disaster.
The writer is a commentator on public affairs.
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