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For a shift to sustainable urban transport, political will is key

PM Modi announcement that Gujarat’s Statue of Unity will be an EV-only zone sends the right message to all planners and policymakers in India’s cities to shift to sustainable transportation
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India is a major stakeholder in the Electric Vehicles Initiative (EVI) of the International Energy Agency. (Shutterstock)
Updated on Sep 23, 2021 06:57 PM IST
By Vineet Abhishek

There comes a moment in a country’s history that needs to be seized to initiate a paradigm shift in its destiny. That moment might be a symbolic gesture, it might be fleeting, but it all depends on the long-sightedness of policymakers and the political regime to maximise the opportunity.

That opportunity might just have presented itself a few weeks back when Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi announced that Gujarat’s Statue of Unity will be India’s first electric vehicles-only zone. That the PM himself said this makes the moment unique and inspiring, and sends the right message to all planners and policymakers in India’s cities.

Delhi, for instance, is facing an air quality crisis, which would be acutely evident once winter sets in, in a few weeks from now. Moreover, the fact that 15 of the world’s top 20 most polluted cities are in India means that incremental steps are no longer sufficient, and a radical shift is needed.

Sustainable transport options, as a political statement, are now visible in some of the biggest cities of the developed world. If Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, says that he is better than his predecessor on the issue of cycling, and commits 154 million British pounds per year for the next five years to enhance the city’s cycling infrastructure; and if mayor, Anne Hidalgo, can plan to make Paris the bicycling capital of the world, then it points to the fact that urban mobility, congestion, and pollution are no longer just social issues in the developed world, they are political. Leaders try to outdo each other on these issues, which can only be good for the cities.

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However, in India, these issues are yet to find major traction in the political manifestos of major parties. And hence, PM Modi’s gesture might just be a game-changing moment for our cities.

On the lines of American cities, our cities too, have pursued a car-centric model of urban development. And yet, even today, more than 40% of the trips in urban India are made either on foot or on bicycles, and almost 27% use public transport (70% in cities such as Mumbai which has a well-developed suburban train system). Even though we pursued car-centric policies, we have 22 cars per 1,000 population, far lower than what it is in countries like the United States (US), Japan, Canada, and even China. Even with such low car ownership, most of our cities are slow and congested, with Mumbai and Delhi having the dubious distinction of being among the top 10 most congested cities in the world. The fact that vehicular congestion is one of the major reasons for bad air quality in urban areas is but an obvious conclusion. It is no wonder that 35 of the top 50 most polluted cities are in India.

The sustainable transport movement is gaining momentum in many big cities around the world. Oxford City Council has planned for a zero-emission zone pilot wherein non-zero emission vehicles will for charged for entry. New York recently banned cars in some of its major streets, and so has Paris. The US, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Norway, Sweden, China, and Japan are eight major nations that signed the Government Fleet Declaration aiming to increase electric vehicles in the government fleet.

India is a major stakeholder in the Electric Vehicles Initiative (EVI) of the International Energy Agency. The Modi government, with its incentives and policy decisions, aims to make India “the world’s largest EV manufacturing and supplying hub”. The revised FAME-II scheme (Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric Vehicles) will be extending incentives particularly public and shared transportation vehicles.

A few days ago, Union minister of power, and new and renewable energy, Nitin Gadkari, suggested to all the state chief ministers and all central government ministers to ensure that their official vehicles are electric.

These exhortations from the highest offices in the country can only lead to a new fillip to the cause of EVs and sustainable urban transportation in Indian cities, and all efforts should be made to seize this moment of reckoning for India’s urban transportation.

Vineet Abhishek is a civil servant with the ministry of railways, Government of India, and is currently at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a JN Tata Scholar

The views expressed are personal

There comes a moment in a country’s history that needs to be seized to initiate a paradigm shift in its destiny. That moment might be a symbolic gesture, it might be fleeting, but it all depends on the long-sightedness of policymakers and the political regime to maximise the opportunity.

That opportunity might just have presented itself a few weeks back when Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi announced that Gujarat’s Statue of Unity will be India’s first electric vehicles-only zone. That the PM himself said this makes the moment unique and inspiring, and sends the right message to all planners and policymakers in India’s cities.

Delhi, for instance, is facing an air quality crisis, which would be acutely evident once winter sets in, in a few weeks from now. Moreover, the fact that 15 of the world’s top 20 most polluted cities are in India means that incremental steps are no longer sufficient, and a radical shift is needed.

Sustainable transport options, as a political statement, are now visible in some of the biggest cities of the developed world. If Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, says that he is better than his predecessor on the issue of cycling, and commits 154 million British pounds per year for the next five years to enhance the city’s cycling infrastructure; and if mayor, Anne Hidalgo, can plan to make Paris the bicycling capital of the world, then it points to the fact that urban mobility, congestion, and pollution are no longer just social issues in the developed world, they are political. Leaders try to outdo each other on these issues, which can only be good for the cities.

RELATED STORIES

However, in India, these issues are yet to find major traction in the political manifestos of major parties. And hence, PM Modi’s gesture might just be a game-changing moment for our cities.

On the lines of American cities, our cities too, have pursued a car-centric model of urban development. And yet, even today, more than 40% of the trips in urban India are made either on foot or on bicycles, and almost 27% use public transport (70% in cities such as Mumbai which has a well-developed suburban train system). Even though we pursued car-centric policies, we have 22 cars per 1,000 population, far lower than what it is in countries like the United States (US), Japan, Canada, and even China. Even with such low car ownership, most of our cities are slow and congested, with Mumbai and Delhi having the dubious distinction of being among the top 10 most congested cities in the world. The fact that vehicular congestion is one of the major reasons for bad air quality in urban areas is but an obvious conclusion. It is no wonder that 35 of the top 50 most polluted cities are in India.

The sustainable transport movement is gaining momentum in many big cities around the world. Oxford City Council has planned for a zero-emission zone pilot wherein non-zero emission vehicles will for charged for entry. New York recently banned cars in some of its major streets, and so has Paris. The US, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Norway, Sweden, China, and Japan are eight major nations that signed the Government Fleet Declaration aiming to increase electric vehicles in the government fleet.

India is a major stakeholder in the Electric Vehicles Initiative (EVI) of the International Energy Agency. The Modi government, with its incentives and policy decisions, aims to make India “the world’s largest EV manufacturing and supplying hub”. The revised FAME-II scheme (Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Hybrid and Electric Vehicles) will be extending incentives particularly public and shared transportation vehicles.

A few days ago, Union minister of power, and new and renewable energy, Nitin Gadkari, suggested to all the state chief ministers and all central government ministers to ensure that their official vehicles are electric.

These exhortations from the highest offices in the country can only lead to a new fillip to the cause of EVs and sustainable urban transportation in Indian cities, and all efforts should be made to seize this moment of reckoning for India’s urban transportation.

Vineet Abhishek is a civil servant with the ministry of railways, Government of India, and is currently at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a JN Tata Scholar

The views expressed are personal

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