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We dream of futuristic e-cars but throw big money at old-world vehicles

Does anybody care about how to sift out the various elements of congestion and pollution so that we have an integrated policy that is reasonable for both commuters and industries?

Madhavan Narayanan 

e-cars, electric cars, electric vehicles
Photo: Shutterstock

India's transition to a shared, electric and connected mobility system can save $330 billion (Rs 20 lakh crore) by 2030 on avoided oil imports alone, a report by Ficci-Rocky Mountain Institute has said.Even under a shared mobility paradigm, over 46,000,000 vehicles (two, three, and four wheelers) could be sold by 2030, it said. But does it make sense for automobile companies to invest tens and thousands of crores of rupees into merely upgrading emission technologies when there is a fundamental paradigm shift taking place in mobility? This author decodes 

As thick smog covered Delhi and the National Capital Region, it took prime-time grilling for the city-state’s transport minister to reveal a dramatic truth: that there was enough money to buy hundreds of public transport buses but no space to park them. Therefore, no buses have been bought.  This is a classic case of a “for want of a nail …the kingdom was lost” syndrome.

Political equations between Delhi’s ruling Aam Aadmi Party and the Centre are such that we will never have facts in cold, clinical detail. We are now suddenly told that space has indeed been found to park those buses.
 
As the smog cleared, sidestepping the exchange of accusations on Punjab and Haryana farmers burning stubbles that bred smoke in the capital, the Petroleum Ministry announced on November 15 that Delhi should leapfrog to the latest Bharat Stage (BS) VI automobile emission norms by April 2018 to curb air pollution in the capital. Never mind the fact that the intermediate BS V was totally skipped in a hurry and BS VI was not due until 2020.

And then we hear that Delhi’s smog is not so much on account of vehicles but is really from a composite set of factors including stubble burning, wind conditions, construction work and even  a dust storm in West Asia.
 
The petroleum ministry stepped on the gas (pun unintended) to please citizens of Delhi crying against health hazards in the air, but the game is so complex that what we see, whether it is at the Centre or in the Delhi government is an ad-hoc, knee-jerk approach to fixing things.
Here are some details. Apart from the time required to fix the switch to better emission norms, we are told it would cost Rs 40,000 crore for the fuel refiners and Rs 50,000 crore for the auto makers to fall in line with a new emissions regime. That is not exactly small change.
 
We  learnt this year that telecom companies that faced higher spectrum charges following a switch to an auction-driven regime after the 2G scandal posed bad loan problems for banks because they had to borrow big time to fix the mess.
 
We can drown ourselves in details on sulphur emissions or spectrum usage, but a simple issue of public policy remains valid: industries need reasonable time to comply with regulations, laws and judgements and even more important, any reasonable government would have a roadmap for industries so  that they can face the risks involved in high capital costs.
 
That is what is lacking in the current scenario.
 
True,  Delhi  - and other choking cities – need better air. But the automobile industry is for the whole country.  Also, congestion is an issue separate from pollution. Smog is still more complicated. Singapore has had zoning restrictions on automobilesLondon has a congestion charge and Delhi has had a short-lived odd-even number-based commuting scheme with exemptions. If you to get depressed further, consider that NCR is a broader zone and vehicles with registrations in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh only add to the congestion, pollution and confusion.
 
Meanwhile, come centre-stage.  India’s own Mahindra group wants to sell electric cars in the US. Suzuki and Toyota last week announced  an electric vehicle partnership that is geared for India to shift to a new automobile landscape.  Nagpur even has an electric vehicle charging station already as the government promises an all-electric road system by 2030. 
 
Now, does it make sense for automobile companies to invest tens and thousands of crores of rupees into merely upgrading emission technologies when there is a fundamental paradigm shift taking place in mobility?
 
Also, does anybody care about how to sift out the various elements of congestion and pollution so that we have an integrated policy that is reasonable for both commuters and industries?
 
Consider the idea that we could do with a different regime altogether for vehicle registration or a fiscal framework that takes into account congestion and pollution together. Consider the idea that the Centre and its various arms such as petroleum and industry ministries work in harmony with the Delhi government and with each other. Consider a Union budget that makes sense to all in fiscal incentives and disincentives. Consider a glorious scenario where courts and prime-time TV news anchors do not have to ask questions that lead to actions but one where coordinated action elicits a timely effect.
 
Maybe this is too much to ask, but there is clearly a case of various arms of the government taking ad-hoc measures in silos, when what we need is a long-term roadmap in which industries and civil society, in general, can look forward to a timeline that offers long-term solutions rather than throw up knee-jerk responses.
 
(The author is a senior journalist and editor who has worked for Reuters, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He is currently an independent media entrepreneur, consultant and columnist. He is listed among the top 200 Indian influencers on Twitter. He tweets as @madversity)

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

First Published: Thu, December 07 2017. 10:00 IST
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