One step forward, two steps back

The initial phase of UPA II witnessed prolific rule making, but this was not followed by responsible governance

The United Progressive Alliance II (UPA II) and the Nano car arrived together in 2009. The frenzy of the new electoral win and the Nano, symbolising aspiration, made many smug. No one was in a mood then to think if cheap cars could put motorization on a spin, choke cities, worsen public health or guzzle more fuel. But for us, the issue was not the small, cheap, big, or expensive cars, but ALL cars – the dinosaurs aggravating pollution, congestion and climate mayhem. The larger question was whether the car was helping urban mobility and at what price. The new government had to give us an answer and a promise.

Five years later, as the UPA II takes stock of its green credentials today--the World Environment day--the last of this current regime, there are more questions than answers. 

We did hear a `promise` in 2009, despite the economic downturn. When globally, the major car companies were lining up for bailouts, forcing Western governments to inject more money to increase car dependency, the UPA-II funded public transport buses as part of the financial stimulus plan. This move tied with a string of public transport reforms, including waiver of taxes on public transport, increased taxes on cars, promise to transform mobility patterns and reduce emissions in the years to come. 

We said `Amen` to a good omen in the initial phase of UPA II that witnessed prolific rule making. In quick succession, the government framed the National Climate Action Plan and the habitat standards for transport. Tools, advisories and guidance documents followed to help city governments with transportation reforms. 

The feel good factor evaporated soon. As the UPA II’s tenure matured we did see a spate of rules, but not responsible governance. It was not the politics of the common good, but conservative politics that failed to resolve the conflict between economic growth, equity and the rationality of sustainability. In defence of growth, the industry and its short term gains, it could bend science, and not account for health and environmental costs of growth.

This is so clear in its failure to make the car industry accept and implement fuel economy standards. Today, India is the only vehicle producing region in the world that has failed to get these crucial fuel saving measures.

This helplessness of the government to set the regulatory terms for the industry is scary. In the case of fuel economy standards it could not even uphold the sanctity of the rule-making process. Even after the public consultation and final approval from the prime minister, the recalcitrant ministries have allowed the approved standards to be reopened and renegotiated unilaterally with the car industry in sheer conflict of interest.

Clearly, in the areas where the government has kept the decision making opaque, non-participatory and partisan, it has found it hard to push decisions. It could not leverage the democratic process to rally public support to offset lobby pressures. Similar fate awaits the emissions standards roadmap. The `Nelson’s eye syndrome’ gives license to the vehicle industry to race to the bottom to compete on costs. Regulators do not demand cutting edge regulations to guide the market. 

This has blocked not only industry-related environmental decisions but also impeded maturing of governance tools in the country. By now, India should have moved ahead on science-based air quality management and green accounting systems and go much beyond the routine command and control approaches. Sustainable development demands this transition. But this has not happened.

Instead, air quality management has fallen victim to bad science and damaging politics. This is grossly evident in the way the conclusions were drawn from the source apportionment studies in six cities mandated by the earlier Auto Fuel Policy to chart the emissions standards roadmap.  The auto industry and the oil companies are using this study to argue that vehicles are not the problem, and diesel vehicles even less so to keep the roadmap lenient and to protect vehicles from harsher regulatory and fiscal measures.

This has set a dangerous trend. This is making industry more resistant to time-bound and effective commitments on environmental performance. Worse, this has further eroded the negotiating power of the regulator to push for better environmental performance.  
Regaining bargaining power vis-a-vis industry is not easy as we have seen in the repeated aborted efforts of the government to curtail dieselization of cars with fiscal measures. It took five years for a half-hearted increase in taxes on SUVs. Only after protracted negotiations, and finally fenced by a stronger public opinion, the government could muster courage to deregulate diesel prices. But even in that it resorted to a hasty increase for bulk buyers, stifling public transport buses, and, a nominal and slow increase at the retail end to benefit the cars.

UPA II would have us believe that they follow laws and rules and, therefore, have done their bit. But the rules of the game remain weak. Strictly playing by the rules is not same as owning responsibility for the state of our air, health and mobility crisis. Only laws--and in this case weak laws--don’t make good governance.

This makes the mobility story more complicated. The UPA II regime had an advantage in its legacy of the National Urban Transport Policy of 2006 based on the principles of sustainable mobility to set the terms of action in states. The policy discussion on transportation reforms has certainly been more open, transparent that created space for a large number of stakeholders to participate with good results. The language of the policy documents have certainly changed to take on board the right principles. Bus, walk and cycle reforms, and car restraint measures including congestion pricing, parking policy, and tax measures are certainly on the agenda.

This wish list of reforms, however, is still very consultant-led and not rooted in the empowered and participatory decision making at the city level. This slows down real action and fails to influence actual investment decisions. In fact, the reform-based national funding in the transport sector has allowed disproportionately high share of funds to be spent on car centric roads and flyovers. Delhi for instance boasts of 66 flyovers but diminished people carrying capacity of roads even as the city is facing nearly doubling of travel trips by 2020.

The ultimate verdict on the state of UPA’s air quality management has come from the latest count of Global Burden of Disease this year. Air pollution has worsened to become the fifth largest killer and 7th in illness burden in India.

Even as I sign off, the tally shows that half of urban Indians breathe air with particulate levels that exceed the permissible limit. One third lives in critically polluted areas. Since the UPA I days, cities with low level of pollution have fallen from 10 to 2 and the number of critically polluted cities has increased from 49 to 89 cities.

Ironically, the UPA II regime had started its tenure with the environment ministry tightening the air quality standards and by including a much larger number of health-threatening pollutants and air toxins in the regulations. But the promise of meeting these clean air targets by the end of the plan period has not been kept.

Should people expect relief when it is too late, the solutions are farther off and more difficult to achieve, and the chance of the UPA II to remedy the situation is finally lost?

Anumita Roychowdhury is executive director-research and advocacy, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE)

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