Sucheta Dalal :Surging car sales reflect a newly confident India (19 Jan 2003)
Sucheta Dalal

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Surging car sales reflect a newly confident India (19 Jan 2003)  

Last week, newspapers and television networks reported the glitzy auto show in Delhi, which has now become a major fixture on the calendar of India’s fast-growing automobile industry. At the same time, car sales are booming. According to industry figures, car sales jumped 26.8 per cent in the first nine months of this year and a massive 36 per cent in December alone.

Surging car sales are a reflection of the newly confident India and the growing aspirations of its people. But creaking public infrastructure, inadequate and unclogged road space and lack of parking facilities are threatening to turn into the biggest damper on the growth of this industry.

That is because a slew of impractical and lopsided new rules and restrictions are emanating from court orders, based on so-called public interest litigation or from callous administrators. These court orders often have an absurd fall-out and end up providing a new tool with which to harass people or additional avenues of corruption to police and the bureaucracy. Policy making is bound to fail if it is focussed on restrictions rather than a holistic view of the city’s needs, its myriad problems and issues such as lopsided development and rampant corruption. And such policies only hurt and exploit the middle class, which follows rules zealously; others simply fork out bribes and do as they will.

The latest absurdity is a scheme to restrict private vehicles prepared by the V.M. Lal Committee under directions of the Bombay High Court (following a so-called public interest litigation to decongest Mumbai’s roads). The scheme proposes that on four days of the week, vehicles with a designated last digit registration number will be barred from the streets of Mumbai. Additionally, the government may charge a ‘‘traffic congestion surcharge’’ in crowded areas to discourage private vehicles. There are dozens of reasons why this is unworkable.

For starters, such rules work well in a Police States like Singapore but not crowded democracies. Similar experiments in other countries (also known for high corruption) have failed miserably. For instance, an experiment in the Nigerian capital where alternate days were reserved for odd and even numbered vehicles to enter the city, saw people buying an additional car which the appropriate opposite registration number. There emerged a premium and a black market for choosing registration numbers. The same will happen in India. Before tackling the issue of restricting private cars, the Committee must address the more serious issue of excessive taxis that are clogging up city roads. Five years ago, the Indian Express had reported that Mumbai had 55,000 taxis, of which at least 20,000 were in excess of the its requirement. The number is probably higher today, since the Lal panel has recommended a ban on new taxi and auto rickshaw licenses. These taxis have a well-organised hafta system, and the police, despite a large fleet of motorcycles and jeeps at their disposal, are reluctant to discipline the black-n-yellows. In busy business districts, they block at least two road lanes and all available parking space. They are invariably parked by the dozen at busy intersections and street corners and have little respect even for designated alighting zones created for buses. Let’s switch now to the issue of whether it is even feasible to push people into inadequate public transport that is already bursting at the seams. In the absence of segmented public transport, most people will simply switch to taxis on the days that their registration numbers are forcibly rested, doing nothing to relieve traffic congestion.

Also, it is a myth that people drive to work on crowded roads for pleasure or to show off their cars. If suitable public transport (such as an adequate fleet of air-conditioned buses, with a reasonable frequency and chance of finding seating space for a substantial part of the journey) did exist, it would be safe to bet that a large number of self-driven private car owners would leave their vehicles at home. It happens in London and New York and will happen in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad. After all, nobody enjoys driving in heavy traffic or the daily hunt for scarce parking. Another economic issue worth a mention is the logic of creating segmented public transport. At the lowest common denominator, bus and train fares are either at break-even levels or partially subsidised by government. So, if a highly-paid executive and his Secretary both use the same public transport, the secretary is in fact subsidising the executive. Or he is eating into a subsidy that he does not need or deserve. This would not hold true if there was no pressure on transport facilities and fares had no subsidy element. Neither situation applies in Indian cities.

Then there is the issue of fairness and practicality. Some time ago, a public interest litigation forced people in private cars, built to modern design, with substantial protection from accidents to use seat belts. Nobody is complaining about the additional safety forced on drivers by the seat belt rule. But when you have absolutely no restrictions on two-wheelers carrying four persons, including children dangling from the knees of women riding side-saddle—all without the simple protection of a helmet or a seat belt, then the insistence on a different regulation for passenger cars is rather comical. Especially, when policemen extort Rs 100 to Rs 500 from car drivers for failing to strap themselves in. Also, when the seat belt compulsion is not applicable to rickety and badly maintained taxis and cars, only because they are too old for the manufacturer to have fixed seat belts on them, the rule become grossly discriminatory. The decongestion of roads in crowded metros is certainly in public interest. But the first step should be to build infrastructure such as multi-storeyed or underground parking lots and to clear road space. Instead, it has pre-empted pavements for paid-parking. Even otherwise, hawkers occupy all free pavements and pedestrians are forced on to the road. The Municipal Corporation is a big culprit in congesting the city, but de-congestion plans rarely focus on its role. In the last few years, dozens of new auto show rooms, shopping malls and garages have been allowed to operate or busy traffic arteries without any parking facilities or even an alighting bay. In Mumbai alone, one could draw up a list of several four-lane streets that are reduced to a single congested carriageway because of pavement businesses and cars/taxis parked two deep with pedestrians occupying a third lane. Clearing these roads, building infrastructure, and finding holistic solutions should be the planners’ priority instead of new rules, ordered by the courts, that only harass hapless people.
-- Sucheta Dalal