Only a New Age Leader Can Drive Change to Break the Politics-Auto Industry Nexus
Politics and pollution are made for each other. Politicians breed pollution, which in turn makes them prosperous. World leaders are trying to resolve climate change issues in Paris, but if the earth has become an unsafe habitat for humanity, the fault lies squarely at the door of rulers and their accomplices. There is hardly a leader in any part of the world who doesn’t groan and moan about environmental degradation. All of them meet at salubrious venues and adopt resolutions to save Mother Earth from the devastation created by her wayward children. Yet they forget about taking any serious action after they get off their Gulfstreams—the carbon footprint be damned—and issue sophistry-laden, cunningly drafted statements listing pseudo-initiatives, which only make matters worse and complicated. Their passion to possess four-wheelers of all shapes, sizes and shades has blinded their thinking about the damage their transport choices are causing to the health of ordinary citizens. A survey of the vehicles, which India’s ruling elite drives to Parliament, government offices and state Assemblies, indicates their apathy towards public health. Last week, Delhi’s Arvind Kejriwal became India’s first CM to impose restrictions on the use of cars in the city starting January 1, 2016. Since Delhi has become one of the world’s most polluted cities, its most popular Chief Minister decided to implement what he thought is a game-changing idea. But his peer group questioned his action. His resolve to allow odd and even number vehicles on alternative days was dismissed as a knee-jerk reaction to judicial scrutiny and intervention.
On the face of it, it is a good beginning. But Kejriwal’s order wouldn’t solve the menacingly rising number of vehicles on Delhi roads. According to reports, Delhi, with a population of about 15 million people, has over eight million motor vehicles on its roads. Over 0.5 million are added every month. In addition, about 80,000 trucks and half a million other motor vehicles enter the capital from other states every day. For the past decade, the city has been a hell for its citizens and motorists. The state allowed an unrestricted boom in vehicles, but hardly took any interest in making roads better for traffic. The length of road per vehicle has shrunk in the past 40 years—from 844 km for 2.25 lakh vehicles in 1971 to 27,000 km for over 75 lakh vehicles in 2014—causing nightmarish traffic jams throughout the day in almost every part of the capital. Unless the number of motor vehicles is restricted, Delhiites will have to work either from home or walk to work wearing masks.
Delhi is not the sole victim of the automobile invasion. There is hardly any city in India with a population of more than a million, which is not congested by the growing number of motor vehicles on the limited length and breadth of civic roads. Ever since India opted for economic reforms, it has become a paradise for the global automobile industry. Our ever-obliging leaders looking for laurels abroad have not only made the entry of multinational motor companies easy, but have also formulated taxation and monetary policies, which make it easier and cheaper for Indians to buy cars than homes to live in or fertilisers to improve agricultural productivity. An analysis of the road tax regime shows India imposes one of the lowest road and registration taxes on new vehicles. In Singapore, sometimes the registration tax exceeds the cost of a new car. No other country apart from India formulates its tax regime or banking operations keeping in views the interests of the automobile industry. Here, banks and carmakers have joined hands to make vehicle loans the best method to maximise profits. It is bemusing to find a bank manager promoting car sales to his saving account holders than opening new accounts or helping a small or medium-scale entrepreneur, or a house buyer. It seems as if banks have been given a political mandate to help motor companies achieve targets.
It is partially because of indulgent state and Central governments that India is one of the top 10 manufacturers of automobiles. In an environment clouded by global recession, India’s passenger vehicle production rose by over 7 per cent this year alone. Economies like Russia, Australia, Brazil and Canada posted a decline. According to reports, India is the most lucrative market for passenger vehicles since the past 10 years. While the sales of such vehicles rose from `1.22 crore to over `2 crore during 2010-15, production grew by nearly 90 per cent. Global carmakers such as Daewoo, Toyota, Audi, BMW, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz (later changed to DaimlerChrysler), Fiat, General Motors, Opel, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Mitsubishi, PSA Peugeot Citroen, Toyota and Volvo raced into the Indian commercial vehicle industry, which was dominated by local manufacturers such as Tata Motors, Ashok Leyland and Bajaj Tempo.
The excessive influence of car-makers dissuades politicians from bothering about the development of public transport system in the country. Modernisation and upgradation of the railways was royally ignored by successive ministers so that the polluting trucking industry could flourish. The vehicle lobby has been influencing infrastructure planners so strongly that they have ignored the planning and expansion of a pan-India road network. It took them over six decades to realise the importance of the Metro rail system in easing traffic and providing a clean transport system. Surprisingly, while our rulers speak about tackling pollution, none of them have ever spoken in a state Assembly or Parliament about making car journeys prohibitively expensive. Imposing maximum tax on cars and luxury automobiles makes better politics since the extra revenue raised could be used to create an affordable public transport system and improve roads. Even the Metro model needs a review. At the moment, it is very inexpensive, not having been planned as a mode of transport for the middle and upper classes. Even after 40 years, the rich and mighty of Mumbai do not take the local train, preferring to get stuck for hours in their pricey SUVs and limousines. Since Indian leaders and decision-makers take pride in acquiring four-wheelers and private aircraft, they are unlikely to annoy the billion-dollar global automakers. Only a new-age politician like Kejriwal may be able to break the flirtatious nexus between politics and an industry that lubricates the turn of wheels on the avenues of power.
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