Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s quixotic solution to the national Capital’s air pollution is symptomatic of almost every disease that afflicts the country’s political economy—subsidy, unfairness, neglect of administration, dangerous populism, coercion, and remedies worse than maladies.
It is astonishing that nobody has mentioned—in fact, even noticed—that the geometric progression of cars in Delhi, as elsewhere in India, is also a consequence of a hidden subsidy—free parking provided by the local authorities. If you buy an accommodation in a multistoried apartment in the national capital region at the rate of around Rs 4,000 per square foot, you end up paying over Rs 1.5 lakh for car parking. But in Delhi, even in posh localities where the price of property is in lakhs of rupees per square foot, people park their vehicles on roads free of cost. Because of their own negligence, the local authorities forego revenue worth thousands of crores.
For a long time, the car buyer didn’t have to bother about the parking facility; the commons were available, to be appropriated by anybody who wished to do so. It also meant that a large number of people who did not have the capacity to buy an automobile—the capacity including the costs of the car and of the parking—also bought vehicles. At the expense of the commons.
This brings us to another characteristic of our system—unfairness. Since roads belong to all the residents, those who don’t own vehicles have suffered because of the appropriation of roads, lanes, and by-lanes by automobile owners. Unsurprisingly, footpaths have ceased to exist—much to the disadvantage of walkers.
Quite apart from the perils of walking in the middle of the road, there are the dangers and discomforts associated with breathing dusty air. According to official data, dust is a bigger pollutant than vehicles, but there is little effort to curb it. The reason is simple: such an endeavor calls for a sea change in the way our cities are administered. This presupposes a sincere and honest endeavor on the part of politicians and bureaucrats to ensure that the cleaning staff do their work, the departments concerned check encroachments and regulate construction, the polluters are made to pay as per the stipulations, public works like digging and laying of sewers do not dirty the surroundings, and so on. Such activities, however, are unsexy; they don’t have the glamour and photo-op value of launching welfare schemes that all manner of netas are so fond of announcing. Welfarism and populism have perverted the very definition of statecraft.
Unsurprisingly, the solution offered smacks of the worst form of populism. Kejriwal wants to restrict the use of cars but not of two-wheelers which are said to be worse polluters, and are much more in numbers, than cars. Being anti-car, in his scheme of things, is being pro-poor.
Another digiriste pathology embedded in the Delhi government’s ‘solution’ is coercion. Instead of persuading the people to use public transport—which can happen only if it is good—the effort is to force people give up one mode just because in the jholawallah theology cars are bad. So, Kejriwal’s predecessor, Sheila Dikshit, did not try to improve the bus system; it imposed the disastrous Bus Rapid Transit or BRT in south Delhi. Unfortunately, the pathology pervades not just economic policy but also body-politic. If somebody doesn’t like a book, song, or movie, they won’t criticize it, as it is done in liberal democracies, but they will ban it, or clamor for its proscription. Persuasion is out; coercion is in.
The odd-even proposal is also likely to be subjected to the law of unintended consequences. The public sector was supposed to galvanize the economy; it has become a burden on the exchequer. Bank nationalization was expected to usher in a socialist paradise; it proved to be boon for unscrupulous businessmen. Subsidies were meant to help farmers, the poor, etc.; they have helped crooked politicians. Most statist measures have resulted in pilferage, distortions, and other undesirable consequences. Restrictions on cars in the national Capital have already evoked demands from various sections for exemptions, the recent one being from lawyers. Exemptions would mean discretion on the part of those holding high offices, and we know what discretion usually results in.
It is unlikely that Kejriwal would be checked in his adventures. For if he is stimulated by the enthusiasms of the pinkish activists, his opponents are no more reasonable and prudent; they are sanguine in their belief that India—someday, somehow, almost by magic—will make our cities smart. This despite the fact that the national Capital is choking; another metropolitan city is sinking.