Monday, June 5, 2000

Let them eat cake or air!-Green Crusade Against the People

June 5, is World Environment Day. This is a good occasion to look at some of the impacts of environmentalism on the people. This article looks at the widening divide between the environmental crusaders and ordinary citizens. A shorter version of this article titled "Let them eat cake or air!-Green Crusade Against the People" appeared in The Economic Times newspaper on June 5, 2000.

This famous statement supposedly made by Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France over two centuries ago, has come to symbolise the divide between the elite and the influential on the one hand and the common man on the other. The current battle in Delhi to clean the city's air has once again brought to light this age-old divide.

Let's look at some facts. Over a quarter of this capital city's population about 12 million live in slums. Between a third to almost forty percent of the population do not have access to clean drinking water and sanitation facility. Yet for over two years, the issue that has caught the fancy of the city's elite is cleaning the air, particularly vehicular pollution. And this is in a country of one billion people, with less than 40 million vehicles in all, and one of the lowest vehicle densities in the world.

Clearly, the city's elites - the activists and the NGOs, the judiciary, the bureaucrat and the politician - have donned the green hats. And of late there have been some reported improvements in the air quality in Delhi. Ironically, this green crusade seems to have hit the poor most. The very people who are engaged in a daily struggle for two square meals and clean water and sanitation, are being offered clean air as a healthy alternative.

To have some understanding of this green divide, it is necessary to look at the difference between the crusading elite and their less fortunate fellow citizens. It is fair to assume that none of the concerned elite have to bother about their next meal, nor water or toilets or housing or transportation or electricity. Naturally, their focus is now on cleaning the air.

The first target was the dilapidated public transport system of buses and three-wheelers. The prescription was to retire the older vehicles. The green elite, of course, is not dependent on the public transport. It is the common man who has to wait that much longer for a bus or try to squeeze into a already overloaded bus.

It is not far fetched to suggest that perhaps the same improvement in air quality would have been achieved if a suitable number of personal vehicles were taken out of service. But such a move would have affected the green elite, the rich and influential the most. How typical it is for the elite to preach the virtues of public transport, when they themselves don't depend on it, and have done all in their power to actually destroy it. How natural it is to abuse the consumerist life styles, and the personal automobile culture, while doing everything possible to make it impossible for most of their fellow citizens to enjoy some of the pleasures of that life-style.
More importantly, vehicular emission is not just a function of old vehicles or even the total number of vehicles. It is also depended upon the distance traveled, congestion, quality of the roads, overloading, quality of the fuel, quality of vehicles and other factors. Fewer vehicles could mean more number of trips to carry the same number of passengers, or overloading, along with all the other factors, might in fact add to the levels of pollution.

So the question is why do old vehicles stay on the road? What are the policies that have contributed to aggravating vehicular pollution?

For instance, the license and permit raj severely throttled the automobile industry, reduced competition, and ensured that the manufacturers had hardly any incentive to improve the performance of their vehicles. The taxation policy further increased the cost of vehicles. This made replacement of older vehicles more prohibitive.

The same approach is reflected in the nationlised petroleum sector. First, the public oil companies had no interest in providing cleaner fuel, and secondly, have shown little interest in tackling the problem of adulteration of fuel. The fuel pricing policy also contributed to the problem. Subsidising kerosene and diesel and taxing petrol not only encouraged adulteration, but is also at the root of the current controversy over increasing dieselisation of even passenger cars in India.

It is amazing that even the NGOs tend to see this as a turf war between the petrol and diesel vehicle manufacturers, rather than the policy framework that have lead to this situation in the first place.

There is no doubt that without the distortions in the pricing of petrol, diesel, and kerosene, there would have been no demand for diesel versions of even passenger cars, and little incentive to adulterate the fuels. Second, an automobile sector open to competition and imports, would be forced to improve the quality of vehicles. Thirdly, eliminating taxes and tariffs would have gone a long way in introducing world class vehicles to Indian consumers at a much lower price. Fourthly, free import of even second hand vehicles would have greatly helped in retiring older and generally more polluting domestic ones. Fifth, a larger domestic market for vehicles would have made manufacturing more economic, and India could have become one of the leading bases for exports. And finally, better vehicles would have lowered the levels of pollution.

It is not surprising that many existing vehicle manufacturers are not keen to see greater competition. But even the green elite has mostly promoted utopian solutions whose only contribution has been to add to the drain of the public exchequer. In the 1980s, it was electric vehicle. Today, Delhi perhaps has the dubious distinction of hosting a number of graveyards for the discarded battery-buses. Undeterred, today they are championing the cause of CNG fuelled vehicles, blissfully ignoring the safety, performance, costs and even environmental aspects of these vehicles. Others are justifying white elephants like a new metro system on the ground that urban public transportation cannot but be subsidised. They seem oblivious of the fact that if the public road transportation system is at all functioning despite all the policy obstacle, it is because much of it is still in private hands. In fact such subsidies to already rich urban areas only increase the attraction of these areas and in the long run compound the problem of congestion and pollution.

Instead of taking a fresh look at transportation policies, we have continued to strangle the public transportation system which is the lifeline of the overwhelming majority of the people. The ruling elite generally believed that trade and transportation are quite superfluous for the masses. This is reflected in the high cost of transportation as well as the high emission levels. The poor quality of the roads only add to these costs.

The problem is of course not restricted transportation alone. Land use policy, restraints on housing and construction, rent control, property taxes, bottlenecks in infrastructure sectors, all have in one way or other contributed to substantially escalating the cost of living in cities, forced a large number of people on to the margins and slums, and of course contributed to environmental degradation. This is the reason many people are forced to live in one out-skirt of the city, and travel to the other end for work each day. Others opt to live in congested neighbourhoods. The result is congestion, pollution and waste of time. And as always the general public and particularly the poor have to bear the brunt.

Perhaps the gulf between the green crusaders and the common man is best illustrated in their respective attitude to cities like Delhi. The former castigates the urban metropolis for environmental, economic and even moral degradation. The latter vote with their feet and move in to the city by the thousands each day in the hope finding an opportunity to improve their lot.
Let us hope that the green elite of today would not share the fate that befell the French Queen, for exhorting the people to survive on clean air and empty stomach. The green crusaders have a real opportunity to argue for lifting the burden of decades of misguided economic policies that have impoverished the people and inevitably degraded parts of the environment.

It is time to realise that environmental quality is like any value-added product. An open market induces competition and provides the incentive for development of newer and better products to attract the attention of consumers. Economic growth makes these products affordable, and offers consumers a wider range of choices. It is time for the green crusaders to end their war on the people and embrace the market.

After all, it is not vehicles, but policies that sustain low performance vehicles, inflate the costs of transportation, promote congestion, that are responsible for pollution. And this is the handiwork of the same elite who in an earlier socialist incarnation contributed to the massive wastage of human and natural resources, and are today vying to don the green mantle. It is not a coincidence, therefore, that cities such as New York, London, or Tokyo, all of which have many more automobiles on their roads than Delhi, also happen to have a better air quality.

It is time to exorcise the ghost of Marie Antoinette. It is time to regard all our fellow citizens as equal. It is time to free the people from the shackles of political and economic controls. Because the bottom line is to the extent a citizens in a country have the freedom to pursue their own interests, to that extent people have the opportunity to improve their own lot, and to that extent they can afford a better natural environment.