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Blaming trucks

More than a levy, highway bypass will help Delhi's air

Business Standard Editorial Comment  |  New Delhi 

Delhi's polluted air has become the subject of worldwide media coverage and widespread local concern. Action to remedy it is overdue. It is the product of many phenomena: the burning of bio-waste near the city and of agricultural waste in the rural hinterland; of poor emissions standards in industry; and of traffic, including the fast-expanding fleet of private cars that ferry Delhi's richer residents. A multi-pronged effort will be needed to fix the problem. From this perspective, it would probably be unwise to focus exclusively - especially given the paucity of reliable studies as to the composition of the problem - on any particular component of the multiple causes. It is unfortunate perhaps that the trucking industry has become something of a scapegoat for the problem after the National Green Tribunal's (NGT's) recent ruling imposing what is in effect a tax on diesel-powered trucks and light commercial vehicles entering the Capital. Although the Supreme Court has since upheld the NGT's ruling, some continue to be concerned about the procedural integrity of a tax that has not been specifically passed by the proper constitutional authority, the legislature.

There are 127 entry points into Delhi from the three neighbouring states of Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Anything between 22,000 and 38,000 trucks use these entry points every night - the lower being the official figure. The consequence of a penalty being levied on these vehicles on traffic conditions can be imagined. Given that internal combustion engines emit considerably more when idling in traffic than otherwise, it is far from clear how much of a net positive for the air the collection of this tax by contractors would be. It is unfortunate that clear studies on this question were neither worked on nor apparently presented to the NGT and the Supreme Court.

It is worthwhile to remember that, even if trucks are the major contributor to Delhi's air pollution, then those that transit through the city do so because they have no option. The government of Delhi and those of the neighbouring states have been extremely dilatory when it comes to completing the much-needed road bypass network. That will ease the nightly pressure on Delhi's ring road system. A basic economic fact is elasticity: if trucks have only one way to traverse from the south of Delhi to the east, or down from the north, then they will be forced to take it, even if they have to pay the mandated penalty. In other words, there is an inelastic demand for transit through Delhi, and imposing a tax on this would merely raise overall costs without changing the behaviour of the trucks. The only social utility, therefore, would come from the use that the Delhi government puts to the additional revenue it receives from the trucks and light commercial vehicles. Given that the Delhi government does not exactly face a funds crunch - it is very comfortably off - any public transport failure that the city faces is a product not of the paucity of funds but of imagination and planning. The priority should be to complete the road bypass network in a timely manner; the new tax is unlikely to solve the problem.

First Published: Mon, October 12 2015. 21:38 IST