May 11, 2014

Shouldn't we rejoice when car sales decline? Why does the media paint a gloomy picture instead?

There is gloom all around. The Indian media as well as the business analysts are disappointed at the dipping car sales. "Passenger car sales in India fell by the double digits in April, a new low for the nation's auto market that has been struggling because of weak consumer confidence in a slowing economy as well as high borrowing cost and fuel prices," says a news report in the Economic Times (Car sales slip further by double digits in April, May 10, 2014.

This is not the first time that you read such a news report. But coming in the wake of a World Health Organisation (WHO) report that points to New Delhi as the worst polluted city (Delhi is world's most polluted city: WHO study. I thought the media should be actually rejoicing at the declining sales of automobiles in India. According to a report in The Telegraph (May 8, 2014) "A study of global air pollution in 1600 cities -- the largest ever -- found the Indian capital's air quality is almost three times worse than Beijing and that 13 Indian cities are among the 20 most polluted in the world."

The report also tells us that 1,400 cars and bikes are added to New Delhi's streets every day. And mind you, as per the 2011 Census, only 4.7 per cent on India's population owns cars. Imagine if 10 per cent of India's population was to own cars !!

Meanwhile, India has already surpassed China when it comes to environmental pollution. According to the 2014 Environmental Performance Index India is ranked 155 among 178 countries, performing even worse than China, Pakistan and Nepal. (Read my earlier blog post: India beats China in environmental destruction. India ranked 155th in Global Environmental Performance Index. In another report, Mail Today (May 11, 2014) says a similar study done by Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee, in collaboration with University of Minnesota and University of Colorado at Denver has shown a 100 per cent jump in mortality arising from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases linked to pollution. "In 2010, 18, 229 cases of total mortality, 6,374 cases of cardiovascular mortality, 2,701 cases of respiratory mortality and 26, 525 cases of hospital admissions of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases (COPD) linked to pollution," the report says (Delhi pollution deaths soar by 100 per cent since 1991. Mail Today

Well, it is not the auto sector is the only culprit. But certainly it is one of the major reasons behind the deteriorating environmental standards in cities. This is primarily because of of the faulty parameters of growth that have been somehow embedded in our thinking. The more expensive the car, more is the pollution leaving behind a deleterious impact on human health and environment. The more you fall sick, the more is the addition to the country's economy.

Some years back I recall TV journalist Vinod Dua had taken up this issue in one of his shows. Present in the panel was Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh (he was then with the Congress party). To the question that cars are increasingly becoming a lifestyle statement, I remember Jairam Ramesh had replied saying that it is an indication of rising incomes. To this, Vinod Dua had come down heavily asking why shouldn't the emphasis not be on developing a mass rapid transit system. I don't think any journalist will repeat the same question now. The way TV channels are hosting regular shows on cars, the thrust is on making people buy expensive cars (and the channels garnering higher revenues). The more the sales of cars, the higher is the GDP growth.

Look at the picture above. It tells you very clearly how much space is need by 60 people if they travel in car, bus or bicycle. The picture is self-explanatory. Adding more cars only adds to the ecological footprint and turns cities into living furnaces. Why can't the growth model aim at sustainable living instead? Why can't the immediate focus of development be to provide cheaper, and easily available public transport or what is called as mass transit system? Whether it is metro or a bus service, every city should be planning for the future. Already, there are lessons to be learnt from across the world where city administrations are making it difficult for cars to ply as freely as they used to. In addition, adequate space is being provided for people who would like to use the bicycle instead.

There is also a need to impose higher taxes on bigger cars. The longer the length of the luxury car, the longer is the traffic jam at peak hours. But this would require a concerted effort on the part of the automobile sector, the media as well as the planners to work towards sustainable living. But all his can happen only if we are able to build adequate public pressure. It is because we are not proactive when it comes to citizen's rights that the cities are not only deteriorating, but collapsing.  

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