Should governments quibble with courts so much when it comes to taking some measures that make the air cleaner? That is the question that comes to mind after hearings this month on the issue of diesel taxis plying in the National Capital Region. The Supreme Court, after what seemed like an impossibly stern ruling to freeze the use of diesel taxis, has ruled that those with all-India tourist permits will be allowed to run in Delhi and NCR until their permits expire. Hopefully this provides sufficient elbow room for the diesel fleets to fade away gently.
We feel the judges have long-term environmental interests in their hearts and that is the way to go. Their deadlines to phase out diesel taxis were tough no doubt, but it is sad to see government and industry lawyers quibbling on a serious issue while it is a matter of fact that Delhi and other leading metropolises are choking. Sometimes, it is vital to take a clear stand with the long run in mind. There are, however, critical roadmap issues that need to be addressed. First, it is entirely the government’s responsibility to ensure that there is adequate infrastructure for compressed natural gas (CNG) stations to serve the cabs that would replace diesel taxis. Second, both taxi services and CNG stations that serve them need fiscal incentives to move faster. Third, livelihoods of taxi drivers are important and need to be protected, just like the safety and working conditions of BPO employees, especially women, who are served by taxis. With the rise of branded taxi services, this seems less of an issue than it is made out to be.
From legal arguments, it would seem the government is more keen on aiding its “Make In India” scheme than look at the consequences of an urban crisis. The Supreme Court’s relief must be seen as a time window for the government to formulate a policy on how to deal with such a situation not only in Delhi but also in other cities. Fuel use, vehicle registration and fiscal incentives and disincentives must be built into a wholesome roadmap policy that goes beyond emission control by automobiles. India is the world’s fastest growing major economy and the sooner we have a policy that anticipates a crisis than walks into one, the better it is. The Chief Justice’s suggestion that the court is in favour of a symbolic environment cess on diesel vehicles only underscores the need for a green fiscal regime in which taxes and incentives need to be used to shape economic forces in alignment with ecological imperatives.