Attack polluting policies, not the Nano

RK Pachauri, head of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, is getting nightmares because of the Nano, Tata’s Rs 1 lakh car. Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) says that it isn’t the Nano by itself but cars overall that give her nightmares. The villains in my nightmares are neither the Nano nor cars overall, but stupid government policies that subsidise and encourage pollution, adulteration and congestion.

Sanctimonious greens call the Nano disastrous because of its affordability— millions more will now clog roads and consume more fossil fuel. This is elitism parading as virtue. Elite greens own cars, but cannot stand the poorer masses becoming mobile, since the consequent congestion will eat into the time of the elite!

More logical would be a protest against big cars that use more space and fuel, or highly polluting old cars. Instead, green hypocrites aim at a new car with the lowest cost, best mileage and least emissions.

The Nano will not burden us with too many cars. India has very few cars per person by world standards. London and New York have ultra-high car densities, yet have clearer air than Delhi. Our problem is too many bad policies, not too many cars.

We subsidise vehicles on a gargantuan scale invisible to layfolk. Roads and flyovers cost crores to build and maintain, yet road use is free (save on a few toll roads). Traffic police and lights are costly, yet are provided free. These invisible subsidies starve cities of funds to expand roads and public transport.

Land in cities now costs lakhs per square metre. Yet parking is free in the suburbs, and costs just Rs 10/day in city centres. A single parking space of 23 sq m occupies land worth Rs 40 lakh. A car occupies more space than an office desk, yet the desk space pays full commercial rent while parking space costs just Rs 10 per day.

Daily parking charges range from $15 (Rs 600) in Washington DC to $30 (Rs 1,200) in New York. CSE launched a sensible campaign to raise parking fees in Delhi to Rs 120, but was foiled. So, parking space now exceeds green space, a scathing comment on priorities.

The world price of oil has risen tenfold to almost $100/barrel, but Indian prices have barely doubled. Left Front politicians, who once wanted to soak the rich, now want to subsidise them. Under-recoveries of oil companies’ total may be Rs 80,000 crore, far more than the cost of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the employment guarantee scheme put together. We sanctimoniously lecture rich countries to reduce their greenhouse emissions, yet subsidise our own.

Diesel is subsidised to be cheaper than petrol. So, Indian car producers produce the highest proportion of diesel cars in the world. Diesel fumes contain deadly suspended particles, P-10 and P-2.5. This subsidy kills.

So does kerosene provided at throwaway prices, ostensibly to benefit poor villagers. One-third of all kerosene is used to adulterate petrol and diesel. That causes horrendous pollution even in the greenest of cars.

What’s the way forward? We must abolish subsidies and raise taxes on vehicles and fuels to reflect their full social cost. The biggest but least visible subsidy is for parking, and we should start there.

Many car owners in the West take public transport to work since parking space downtown is costly and scarce. We should levy parking fees on an hourly, not daily basis. Rs 10/hour could be a starting point in the metros.

In parts of Tokyo, you cannot own a car unless you own a private parking space. This is too extreme for India, but indicates the future path. If we charge owners the full social cost of parking, people will buy smaller and perhaps fewer vehicles, and fewer still will take them to work. That will slash congestion and pollution.

Cities should levy stiff annual taxes on vehicles, not a one-time tax as in Delhi, and use the revenue to constantly expand public transport and roads. This will create economic synergy: private transport will finance public transport. London and New York have high-density public transport as well as high car density.

Apart from underground rail, cities need elevated roads to ease congestion and pollution. Lata Mangeshkar killed a proposal for an elevated road near her Mumbai flat saying pollution at her flat’s level would affect her throat. She did not care that the throats of poor people living on the pavements were far worse affected by fumes, and might get relief if some fumes were diverted to a higher level. What elitism!

Next, some medicine that will be really bitter, politically. The excise duty on all automotive vehicles should be raised to reflect their social costs. Fuel subsidies should be abolished. Price differentials between petrol, diesel and kerosene should be removed, ending incentives for adulteration. Diesel cars should bear a heavy additional cess to finance improved healthcare for those affected by their emission of harmful particulate matter.

That is a long, politically difficult agenda. Only part of it will ever be achieved. Yet that is the way to go, rather than agitate against the Nano.

What do you think?