The increase in oil prices in India is no doubt painful for the middle class. On a monthly basis, an increase of two rupees on a litre may translate into an erosion of earnings ranging from about Rs.60 to Rs.120 for many middle class families, which operate a two-wheeler; most regular users may be spending at least a litre a day, and many twice that much.
But the oil and oil-hungry vehicles can yield benefits by simply becoming objects of a tax that will help fund alternative options. This strategy is increasingly being resorted to in some international cities by politicians who are genuinely of a Leftist orientation. Mayor Ken Livingstone in London has been funding some of the finest buses anywhere using such taxation measures. He has just increased the charge levied on bigger vehicles to 25 pounds, for entering designated areas of London; he has also announced a massive investment in improving access to cycling in London.
Commuters riding trains, trams and buses in India will not miss the irony of the Indian Left asking that petrol prices not be raised, when Leftist initiatives the world over favour taxing the rich, who use up the non-renewable, polluting fossil fuel resources, and use the tax funds to help everyone. Clearly, India’s Left parties have it all backwards and treat oil as some holy cow.
I have no quarrel about people wanting to buy and own cars. As a believer in the Green philosophy, I only submit that they must be ready to pay for the privilege. It is common sense that when there are fewer polluting engines around, the quality of air is improved and we can all lead a healthier life. India’s cities are notorious for particulate matter pollution that is affecting millions of people with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other respiratory conditions. We can and must limit the number of engines that are being let loose on our roads everyday. The alternative is to put fewer engines in the form of buses and opt for trains that haul a lot many more people than cars and scooters, at a lower cost to the purse and to the environment.
As I rode the 11.02 from Kodambakkam to Fort this morning, these were the thoughts that struck me. I was in the vendors coach, which provides more standing room, and pondered India’s vehicle madness and how the Left parties were indirectly calling for everything that would help the rich: policies that make it possible to buy low fuel-efficiency, high-emission cars and operate them at will and with wanton disregard to the environment by keeping fuel cheap. What’s Leftist about all that, I wondered?
I saw an old gent squeezing his way into the belly of the vendors’ coach, a crude walking stick in hand, eyes straining through thick eyeglass lenses. What would his reaction be to the Hummer that was proudly shown off in the Auto Show recently held in Delhi? Anyone driving a Hummer by choice must have a warped sense of life on earth and abysmally poor understanding about energy and the world’s future.
I was glad to hang on to the strap, however crude and antiquated the train service in Chennai may be. We can always put in a better train service if some dedicated taxes or a cess were levied on oil, as London and some cities on the continent have been doing. Perhaps our Dravidian leaders will speed up the Metro rail plan.
Far away, Ken Livingstone proposes to do the following things for London if he wins the Mayoral poll: Over-60s and the disabled to be allowed to use the freedom pass, allowing free travel on London public transport 24 hours a day, instead of just after 9 am. Congestion charge likely to rise to £25 a day for heavily polluting 4x4s. No increase in fares in 2008 for single journeys on buses and the Tube.
If Ken loses the Mayoral race, which is quite unlikely given the nature of his proposals, we would welcome him here.