The energy and environmental effects of too many automobiles have not been addressed.

The Auto Expo reminds us that it is hard to imagine an urban middle-class nuclear family without a car. It establishes their middle class identity, and demarcates them from the press of the masses in crowded trains and buses. Cars seem safe, comfortable and — what holds the key to the middle-class psyche — dignified.

The Hamara Bajaj family of four miraculously perched on a scooter would earlier evoke an indulgent smile; now, in an age of double-income families and car loans, it is a horror to be avoided for its risks and its sheer gracelessness. A family with an entry-level car like Nano or Alto, like Hamara Bajaj in the pre-reform days, is indisputably middle-class in the eyes of society.

Cars are about both physical and social mobility; but there is also a caste system within the world of cars that is becoming intricate by the day. So, even within a small car segment, there are players who promote style and the ‘sensuous experience' of driving over the convenience of having a car.

These subjective features, or ‘auto aesthetics' if you like, become more dominant as one goes up the price ladder. Hence, designers are crucial to the industry for their ability to lure the consumer. Helping them out on the showroom or exhibition floor are glassy models that wrap themselves around cars in impossible body angles.

So, post-reform India has also been The Great Automobile Experience — not just for the consumer forever looking to upgrade his ‘auto caste', but for society at large. It has redefined the sharing of urban spaces: Those with cars control the public space, with the backing of the state. Yet, after two decades of our love affair with cars, society and government have been unmindful of its effects on the environment and energy consumption.

ROAD TO NOWHERE

Let's begin with social attitudes. It is remarkable how our main city roads are cluttered with cars right through the day, yet people driving cars complain about the worsening traffic, as though an extraterrestrial hand or some inherent tendency towards chaos were the cause. And, those sweating it out in buses cannot wait to buy their Nano or Alto on easy instalments!

Some thousand new cars hit the roads of Bangalore or Delhi each day, yet the government or society isn't alarmed. Roads are widened, and trees, pavements, shops, houses and pedestrian paths make way for cars — and more cars. This seems like the normal thing to do, and is, in fact, regarded as a sign of good governance. When this space runs out, and it does very soon, there are flyovers and elevated expressways.

Then, driving becomes pleasure, a cruise where no cows or slum-dwellers (who are below the expressway) can intervene. Distance is measured in minutes, not kilometres. So, when the road is great, you could be just “30 minutes away from the city centre”, even if you are 30 km away. This promise of a silken smooth drive raises valuations of properties in distant suburbs. It also means that for some people, the cost of fuel does not matter much. If this is what “urban infrastructure” is all about, we are on a road to nowhere.

COMATOSE GOVERNMENT

The government is unperturbed, even as cars are rendering our cities dysfunctional by the day. Politicians and bureaucrats are sanguine about the emergence of India as an auto production and export hub. They wear a satisfied look, of presiding over a country that has ‘arrived', when they visit auto factories and expos. The Draft Approach Paper to the Twelfth Plan affirms this sense of unconcern. Its chapters on energy and transport merely talk about creating a mass rapid transit system in cities, without even a whisper on the distortions caused by the auto boom. Programmes like the JNNURM and Rajiv Awas Yojana have nothing critical to say about urban infrastructure as it is currently conceived. It's obvious that no one wants to take on the auto lobby. It has become a barometer of industrial activity; such is its grip on the minds of policymakers.

At a broader level, the document seems to generally look upon rapid urbanisation as an inevitable and desirable consequence of high growth (in itself, a problematic notion), without saying anything on how urbanisation can deepen our energy problems. It could have observed that by promoting expressways and cars, the government and banks are encouraging energy inefficiency, not just through higher direct consumption of petrol and, worse still, diesel, but also through needless use of primary energy to make steel, cement and tar for flyovers, and longer and wider roads.

India's supposed ‘right to grow', consume energy, and spew carbon compounds seems a specious argument in the context of the transport sector. Transport accounts for approximately 11 per cent of our energy use, but this is likely to increase rapidly if we are to continue with our present ways.

ANOTHER APPROACH

How do we break out of the present combination of shoddy thinking and dubious intent? A cosmetic approach of insisting on fuel-efficient vehicles is to evade the basic problem — too many cars on the road. That buses and trains are more energy-efficient is a no-brainer. But to ensure that they — along with the much-maligned and energy-efficient auto-rickshaw — get a lion's share of the road space, there must be policies in place to limit use of cars. Cars should be heavily taxed, more so diesel ones. Banks should go easy on car loans as part of long-term energy and environment management. Business and central districts in a city should ramp up their parking rates, as in places like London.

And, we should ensure that our cities don't grow too large. The ideal city is one where we can cycle from one place to another, like some of the prettier European towns. The aesthetics of such an existence would outdo that conjured up for us by auto design gurus. By the way, how come the cyclist does not figure in our energy and transport planning?

(This article was published on January 6, 2012)
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