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Subir Roy: Guns versus butter to cars versus trees

For India, the need to take the road of sustainable development should be self-evident

Subir Roy  |  New Delhi 

Over the last week, Bangalore has been witness to a drama that goes to the heart of the matter: what kind of world do we wish to live in and, more importantly, bequeath to the next generation? If the last century’s critical choice was captured by the symbolic conflict between guns and butter (after choosing guns up to the Second World War, the world largely opted for butter or public welfare), this century has to choose between trees and cars.

The Bangalore municipality recently decided to cut down 19 trees along Sankey Road, one of the more pleasant in the city with an emblemic water body, in order to widen it to relieve traffic pressure created by more and more cars. This – cutting trees to widen roads – has been happening all over Bangalore for several years now as the once pleasant, green, essentially small-town city has turned into one of traffic jams and glass and concrete structures.

Residents of the city, which also has a tradition of social concerns, have been protesting. In this instance, those in the neighbourhood came out in large numbers to stop the auction of the 19 trees. Determined officials, bidding contractors and a local corporator were arrayed against agitating citizens. Initially, the auction was abandoned, then held in secret and the tree cutting began in the dead of night. The citizens ran to the high court during the day and got an order out to save as many trees as were left. But by the time they did so, 5.30 p m, all but two trees were gone.

In choosing between cars and trees, which global example should India follow? Europeans, who are saying partial goodbye to cars in urban areas, or Americans, who seem indefinitely beholden to them? What makes things complicated for Indians is the up-and-down relationship they have had with America. Till the eighties, through non-alignment, planning and the Vietnam War, India turned its head away from learning from Americans. The initiation of economic reforms meant a reversal, consolidated by the partial admission to the nuclear club with American help. Today, the Indian middle class has extensively adopted American ways of living — junk food, private health insurance (as opposed to demanding an efficient public health service) and cars. What appears to have been lost in the process of journeying from one extreme of total rejection to another of total adoption is the ability to pick and choose.

A recent report in the The New York Times outlines the different practices in on the two continents. Parking on streets has virtually stopped in Europe and even a former home of cars like Munich has turned into a walkers’ paradise. An American city like San Francisco, which is also supportive of walking, remains an exception. While the US is trying to accommodate driving, Europe is trying to make cities more livable by making them relatively free of cars. Not just that, its city administrations have gone out of their way to make life difficult for those driving cars. Pedestrian subways have been removed and there are more traffic lights that turn and remain red more often and longer.

Both past history and current economics are contributing to this. European cities that are older were built before cars arrived and so were narrow roads, which cannot take in too many cars. Consequently, they have developed better public transport systems. There is also the realisation that a car takes up five times the public space than a pedestrian does. As for current economics, oil is far costlier in Europe, which makes driving two to three times costlier there than in the US.

US public attitudes and political stance underlie this contrast. Europe is worried that it will miss its Kyoto protocol commitments; the US is freed from any such worry since it has refused to sign up. In the US, there is much concern over choices, the right to own and use personal cars. In Europe, the concern is about the quality of life in cities. Interestingly, the two continents were on the same page a decade ago, supportive of more car ownership. But attitudes and policies have changed in Europe since then. Today, 91 per cent of delegates to Swiss Parliament take the tram to work. A typical commute will be done by tram, bicycle and walking. So today from Vienna to Copenhagen, large parts of European cities are closed to cars, while in cities like Paris and Barcelona car lanes are losing out to armies of cyclists.

Differences in majority attitudes in the US, India and Europe have cultural and economic explanations. In poorer countries like India and China, which are chasing material prosperity, owning cars is a matter of aspiration. Ideas of fraternity, pursuing the greater common good and simply better governance mark out Europe from the US. What is more, the US, which led the world in most ways through the second half of the last century, seems to be in a state of denial. Rising partisan politics is causing sections to play with defaulting on public debt, despite the ignominy it can bring, to further their political goals.  

For India or any other country, the need to take the road of sustainable development should be self-evident. Good growth in emerging economies and recovery in developed economies lead to sharply rising commodity prices, inflation, policy-induced slowdown in the former and stymied recovery in the latter. Unfettered consumption will simply not work. But too many venal and semi-literate politicians, officials and a public often unaware or unconcerned about the public good prevent the right choices from being made.  

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First Published: Wed, July 06 2011. 00:09 IST