Sucheta Dalal :Public transport and pollution: Don't bring the courts into it
Sucheta Dalal

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Public transport and pollution: Don't bring the courts into it  

June 4, 2002

Mumbai's environmentalists are at it again - they want the courts to resolve problems that ought to be tackled by the municipal and civic departments of the government.

The Bombay Environmental Action Group has filed a litigation asking for restrictions on private cars in order to reduce pollution in Mumbai.

We in India certainly have a lot to be grateful to the judiciary for, but let us not go to courts on policy issues such as wearing helmets, fastening seat belts while driving or banning private cars.

NGOs (who wield a disproportionate amount of power these days) are increasingly using public interest litigations to force policy decisions on people in areas that ordinarily require a debate and consensus. This often leads to skewed judgements, which address only a segment of the problem.

For instance: It is now mandatory to fasten seatbelts while driving -- a decision that all right minded citizens would naturally support.

But while passengers inside cars are now better protected, no comparable rule exists for two-wheelers. In most parts of India, two-wheelers present the happy picture of a family of four on a Hamara Bajaj.

What often mars this picture is that the woman is sitting sidesaddle, wearing a slippery polyester saree and precariously balancing a boisterous baby on her lap, while the husband weaves through dense traffic and negotiates his way over potholed roads.

In fact, it makes for a downright dangerous picture. But nobody has gone to court asking for restrictions on this happy family so that safety takes precedence over their convenience.

Many states make it mandatory for those using two-wheelers to wear helmets. A bunch of law students recently won a public interest litigation on the subject. But have you considered why so many states introduce rules mandating helmet wearing and withdraw them ever so often? Is it to help the helmet manufacturers? How can safety perceptions change every few years?

Recently, India Today exposed how the introduction of new license plates for vehicles (complete with hologram and easy identification symbols) may not be driven by efficiency considerations but by the lobbying of the sole manufacturer of license plates with these precisely tailored specifications.

All these rules are imposed on the long-suffering middle class, in complete confidence that they are too disorganized or lazy to question or protest.

Banning private cars in order to reduce pollution seems exactly such a move.

Many middle class Indians can now afford private cars and have opted out of the "pleasure" of commuting to work, battling hawkers at railways stations to scramble into a crowded train and travel, packed like sardines along with sweaty co-passengers in what passes off as Mumbai's most efficient public transport.

This has caused much hand-wringing among leftist intellectuals and the elite, who are furious at such upstarts hogging more road space every day.

Ban the private cars or make them unaffordable for most of the middle class is the frequent refrain, with Singapore touted as the example to emulate.

The argument finds support among several segments of people. The rich, because they will remain unaffected by it, and it also decongests their roads. Government babus love the idea, because it is simple to implement.

Were they asked to tackle taxi or bus transport unions that would have been difficult - but banning private cars is simple. It only needs an administrative order raising duties or permitting only odd-and-even numbered vehicles being used on a given day.

Also, one can safely bet that government cars will be exempted from such rules. Even in Mumbai, which is relatively less impressed by officialdom, the legend "Bharat Sarkar" plastered on a vehicle is the passport to flout traffic rules. They can double park, park in no-stopping or no-parking zones or take a short-cut through one-way streets -- how else can the establish their superiority?

Third, reducing the number of smoke-belching taxis is politically difficult, because they are unionized and a ban on private vehicles can in fact allow more taxis to operate. So they will continue to fleece passengers coming in at airports saying that they have been in a queue for three to four hours. And they would have the untrammeled right to always refuse passengers foolish enough to travel short distances.

The fourth argument is that new infrastructure projects are elitist and encourage private cars. Innumerable media reports will wrongly tell you that cities like Mumbai, which constructed 32 flyovers in two years and significantly de-congested traffic, did so at the cost of the ordinary pedestrian.

The truth is that development of public transport facilities needs government funding or cheap loans. In Maharashtra, they have been blighted for over 17 years as the Maharashtra government negotiates a World Bank soft loan for the Mumbai Urban Transport Project-II.

This is supposed to include pedestrian footbridges, subways, railways overbridges -- all of which have been stalled because of the unending negotiations.

On the other hand, flyovers have not been financed by the exchequer. The government collects toll from vehicles and charges a cess on petrol and diesel to pay for the flyovers. There are collateral benefits to pedestrians in the form of traffic decongestion and reduction in environmental and noise pollution.

Let us look at the latest demand for restrictions on passenger cars. Again, everybody supports a reduction in the explosive growth of passenger cars -- but not through court ordered restrictions or by making them unaffordable.

As this column has written earlier, reducing environmental pollution is possible by using an inexpensive hydrodrive catalytic converter, not by banning cars.

What we need is incentives for people to leave their cars at home except for medical emergencies, weekend outings or formal occasions. People should be encouraged to use public transport for commuting.

That can only happen if cities develop segmented public transport. Public transport, if it is available at short regular intervals, is air-conditioned (important in all Indian cities, especially when most cars are air-conditioned) and gives you a fair chance of finding seating space, will be snapped up by the people.

Driving to work is a nightmare in most Indian cities; people do it because they have little choice.

Air-conditioned buses are an obvious alternative. A single bus can take as many as 23 cars off the road and is definitely cheaper that driving a car. They also save parking costs and problems and allow commuting time to be constructively used.

A comprehensive survey among car owners, especially those that are self-driven, would show that most of them would prefer using public transport (on most days) to office, if it is air-conditioned and has a reasonably frequency.

Even in downtown office areas, people would probably beg for a shuttle bus service to ferry them swiftly to the railway stations and bus stations, instead of forcing them to travel squashed up in shared-taxis.

When NGOs make facile comparisons with Singapore, they forget that it has extremely efficient, clean and well maintained public transport.

Given our socio-economic structure, we need segmented public transport that is self-financing and does not burden ordinary commuters.

This could include a rail-on-rail system which doubles the existing rail track capacity in Mumbai, it could include air-conditioned buses (with private sector participation, better planning and as a combination of mini-buses and large buses feeding passengers to each other for maximizing capacity utilization) or an all-weather water transport systems which will cost far less than an expensive sea-link or draconian restrictions on private cars.

But unlike a simple ban, finding viable, efficient and affordable alternatives requires planning, design, application and funding -- all of which the government is reluctant to devote time to, unless there are huge payoffs involved.

-- Sucheta Dalal