The News International (Pakistan) - April 27, 2013

by Praful Bidwai

It’s no small irony that even as employment, and the share of the national income going to the poor, have decreased in India over the past five years, car sales have doubled. Automobile manufacturing is one of India’s fastest-growing industries, thanks to the consumerism of the upper-middle class and its elitist notions of lifestyle, personal mobility and the glamour it attaches to cars.

This automobile addiction is likely to ensure that the current six percent drop in passenger car sales, the first in a decade, will be transient and brief. The dizzying 52 percent rise in the sales of utility vehicles, mostly sport-utility vehicles (SUVs), more than compensates for it.

SUVs are gas-guzzling, road-hogging monsters that individually have the same toxic emissions as a truck. Since they typically run on diesel, their emissions are even more harmful to public health than those from petrol, including fine (below 10-micron size) respirable suspended particulate matter (RSPM) and unburnt hydrocarbons. India is now the world’s second fastest-growing SUV market.

India prices diesel much lower than petrol, although the two cost the same to produce. Today, a huge percentage – 55 percent – of all cars sold burn diesel, up from 32 percent in 2006 and under 10 percent at the decade’s beginning. Thanks to this, and a runaway rise in private vehicles, concentrations of air pollutants, especially RSPM and oxides of nitrogen and sulphur, have risen sharply in most cities. Vehicular emissions account for more than 60 percent of urban India’s pollution. Pollution levels are well above the prescribed standards in 188 of the 190 cities surveyed.

Not only bigger cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata, but even smaller ones like Surat (Gujarat), Faridabad (Haryana), Alwar (Rajasthan), Meerut (Uttar Pradesh), Raipur (Chhattisgarh) and Nagaon (Assam) have much higher RSPM levels than the national air-quality standard of 60 microgrammes per cubic metre. Only one metropolis (Delhi) figures among India’s five most RSPM-polluted cities. Smaller cities also lead in sulphur and nitrogen oxide pollution.

Delhi made a welcome switch in 2002 from diesel/petrol to compressed natural gas in public buses, taxis and auto-rickshaws. The gains from this have been reversed. Delhi’s current RSPM level (261 microgrammes) is worse than in the pre-CNG days.

Urban India is literally choking on air pollution. More than 30 percent of children in Indian cities suffer from respiratory allergies, reduced lung function and other disorders. The December 2012 Global Burden of Diseases report of the World Health Organisation describes the situation as “grave” and says air pollution is the fifth biggest cause of death in India, after high blood pressure, indoor air pollution, smoking, and poor nutrition.

Air pollution causes or aggravates several health disorders, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease and hypertension. Add to this the disability-related loss of work, increased stress, aesthetic disfigurement from flyovers and car parks, road-accident deaths, and insecurity for pedestrians and users of non-mechanised transport like bicycles – and the picture gets more frightening.

Cars are the greatest culprit here. They parasitically occupy enormous road-space even when stationary. Typically, they carry two persons, but hog one-third as much space as a bus ferrying 40 to 60 people. Cars account for less than 10 percent of all commuter trips in most Indian cities, but use three-fourths of road-space. In cities like Delhi, bicycles account for a similar proportion of trips but get virtually no space and face serious risks.

Abuse of public space to park private cars is one of India’s biggest scandals. If car owners were made to pay market-based rent for the prime space they grab in central business districts, where land values run into lakhs of rupees per square foot, many would simply stop using vehicles. Yet, most cities charge laughably low parking fees. In residential areas, car owners have brazenly privatised roads, even pavements.

Cars are parasitical upon society in other ways. A huge share of urban infrastructure public spending goes into widening roads or building bridges and flyovers – all for automobile use. Cars slow down traffic, especially public buses, by 30 to 50 percent, thus adding to loss of precious social time. Nothing could be more unjust.

Cars have become an elite cult, a form of ostentation and a symbol of speed and power with which to inspire awe and fear among people using other means of transport. The Indian middle class is no longer satisfied with small sub-compact vehicles like the Maruti-Suzuki-800, whose sales have fallen drastically. It wants bigger, more luxurious cars. Mid-size sedan sales now record the highest growth.

Cars create a sick social pathology through vulgar display of wealth and macho aggression. The typical Indian car owner has contempt for the pedestrian, whom he will corner and terrorise. Cars thus promote a culture of callousness and misanthropy.

Many industrially developed societies are now regretting motorisation and discouraging cars by banning their use in city centres, taxing them more heavily, and levying high parking fees and congestion charges (eg eight pounds per entry into central London). They are also promoting public transport and reserving lanes for buses and bicycles. Many European cities have seen movements to establish non-motorists’ rights and reclaim roads equitably for people.

Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou limit and auction car licence plates issued each year. Singapore won’t let you buy a car unless you pay through your nose and own your parking space. You can only drive your car on alternate days of the week depending on the odd/even number on the plate.

We South Asians desperately need similar measures – and a blanket ban on SUVs and diesel-fuelled cars. We must aggressively promote cleaner fuels and enforce pollution checks. This means ending the permissive culture under which Delhi, with seven million vehicles, has only 120 pollution inspectors.

Above all, South Asian cities need affordable, safe, efficient public transport. The solution doesn’t lie in metro rail, which is far too expensive to construct (Rs200-Rs500 crores a kilometre) especially in already built-up areas. Metro construction disrupts traffic for years. To pay for itself, it needs 20,000-40,000 passenger-trips per hour per direction, which very few of our cities can generate given their densities and job locations.

Thus the Delhi Metro, despite huge subsidies from Japan, the Asian Development Bank and the Indian and Delhi governments – which are likely to continue for decades – remains unaffordable for the poor, unlike buses. With its sleek looks and air-conditioning, it’s the darling of the middle classes, but it has failed to reduce the number of cars. Indian policymakers are foolishly extending the Metro to small cities when its viability remains unproved even in the metropolises.

The best, and most cost-efficient solution lies in using existing city roads through Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), electric trolley-buses (and trams, where feasible), and promoting cycling and walking. This entails reorganising city life, minimising commuting, and creating exchange hubs and pedestrian plazas.

The BRT means reserving for buses road-space (about 40 percent) that’s roughly proportionate to their commuter-trip contribution (60 percent), and rationalising other traffic. BRT corridors were planned in numerous cities, including 26 in Delhi. But few have been implemented. Delhi’s sole BRT has been under the car lobby’s vicious attack. Deprived of traffic marshals, it’s becoming dysfunctional. This just won’t do. Motorists must be made to respect public priorities.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activist based in Delhi. Email: