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Not 'either/or' but 'and'!

The Nano is a brilliant achievement worthy of all the praise it has received. But if not managed properly, the increase in cars it will herald could be killing, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Jan 19, 2008 22:54 IST

The debate provoked by Ratan Tata’s Nano misses the point. ‘Is it a miracle of modern manufacturing that makes cheap cars available to millions or, in Indian circumstances, a potential nightmare that could lead to unacceptable pollution and urban congestion?’ is a misleading question. It’s not an either/or situation but a case of both options being true. The Nano is a brilliant achievement worthy of all the praise it has received. But if not managed properly, the increase in cars it will herald could be killing.

Let’s first see what would happen if the increase is not effectively managed. DowntoEarth, India’s most highly-regarded environmental magazine, says, “On a per passenger basis, a car emits two times more particulate matter that poses a serious health challenge compared to a two-wheeler and four times more compared to a bus”. If people who today use two-wheelers buy the Nano, pollution levels will sharply jump.

Can our cities tolerate this? The Central Pollution Control Board says more than half the 90 cities it monitors have particulate matter levels that are already critical. Any significant increase could make them unlivable.

The Centre for Science and Environment fears diesel cars the most. Because their emissions are more toxic, there is a case for banning them. However, Murad Ali Baig, the car expert, disagrees. He claims technology has so improved the modern diesel engine that 49 per cent of cars in Europe and 69 per cent in France are diesel. But this only means that diesel is no longer significantly worse than petrol. The problem of enhanced pollution from the increased numbers remains.

The second impact will be congestion. Since 1950, the urban population has grown 4.6 times whilst the number of vehicles 158 times! What does this mean in traffic terms? Here’s a chilling illustration: between 1997 and 2007, the average speed of a Delhi vehicle fell from 27 kmph to just 10. Bombay, Calcutta and Madras have identical stories to tell. So in five years, with a million Nanos on the road alongside the increase in all other cars, you could have virtual gridlock.

Most people think the solution is more roads. Alas, experience suggests otherwise. DowntoEarth says, “Building roads is not the answer because traffic expands to occupy the space available." Every 10 per cent increase results in a 9 per cent growth in traffic.

In fact, there are only two answers. The luddite one is to ban the Nano and, beyond that, the increase in all cars. But not only does that fly in the face of progress, it’s ludicrous to even think of. The other is to manage the increase and ensure pollution is contained and congestion regulated. After all, European countries have more cars in a smaller landmass but have successfully avoided both pitfalls.

This is where immediate government action is needed. There’s a lot it could do. First, with regard to diesel, it should ban old cars. In addition it should abolish the subsidisation of diesel.

Second, with regard to city centre congestion, it should increase parking fees. A day’s parking in Washington costs $15. In Delhi it’s Rs 10! But it could also emulate London and impose congestion charges on motorists who drive to the most crowded parts of town.

The aim is to take cars off the road by discouraging their use. Of course this can only work if public transport is first made affordable, reliable and extensive. That’s the case in London, New York and Singapore, but not Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta. Now, with the advent of cheap cars, the government has to ensure this expeditiously.

Yet this is not just a question of spending money. It also requires sensible fiscal policies and incentives. At present, the tax on a Delhi car amortised over its lifetime comes to 300 per year whilst the annual tax on a bus is Rs 13,000. That’s 43 times more! It ought to be the other way.

Finally, will the government act? Your guess is as good as mine. But if it doesn’t, the people’s car Ratan Tata has made possible will be unusable without unnecessary and avoidable suffering.