Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Wheels of change turn slowly

Jan 28, 2009

By Nayan Chanda

INDIA'S perennial protest capital, Kolkata, recently produced yet another political movement: the 'auto bachao' or 'save the auto' campaign.

Despite echoing the cry of America's Big Three carmakers' CEOs, who successfully lobbied Congress for a bailout of their companies, Kolkata's campaigners had a rather different beneficiary in mind. The smoke-belching three-wheeler auto-rickshaws that they are attempting to 'save' could not look more different from the shiny, petrol-guzzling SUVs and sedans produced by Detroit's stricken giants.

The natures of their respective movements are also a study in contrasts. The operators of Kolkata's noisy and polluting auto-rickshaws made their point by burning state buses and disrupting traffic, while the managers of the US's auto manufacturers flew into Washington in sleek private jets to beg Congress for a bailout.

Yet beneath the vastly different battles under way to save the 'auto' lies a basic truth: Whether in Detroit or Kolkata, saving jobs, profits and political patronage trumps saving the environment.

[This is a callback to the other articles I've archived on saving jobs versus priming demand. However the situation and circumstances are different. In the politically motivated "save-the-job" scheme, the jobs are from a specific sector of industry. In Singapore's case, it is an across the board job saving scheme. So there are not specific lobbyist.]

The violent demonstrations and the pall of smoke rising from Kolkata's burning buses at the beginning of the year are a re-run of an old movie.

On the previous occasion, in July last year, the High Court had responded to public interest litigation and ordered that older model auto-rickshaws running mostly on toxic adulterated fuel would have to be replaced by Jan 1 this year by newer models running on compressed natural gas (CNG), a cleaner fuel.

[On another point, I do not see our courts (Singapore) ever ordering the govt to make policy. This is both admirable, as well as terrible. Admirable that the courts can so order the govt to do so (tho it must be said that nothing was really done) and terrible that the courts are suppose to make govt policy! That is so wrong and says how poorly the govt is working.]

Unionised auto-rickshaw operators, who had long flouted emissions regulations under the protection of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which rules Bengal, went on the rampage, forcing the state government - which had done nothing to facilitate the transition ordered by the High Court - to plead with the court for more time.

Allowing the city's 60,000-odd auto- rickshaws to carry on polluting would exact a heavy penalty on Kolkata's environment and the health of its residents. Last year, Kolkata was declared the most polluted city in India, with the highest number of lung cancer victims and as many as 70 per cent of its denizens suffering from respiratory ailments. Victims of pollution may not know where to direct their grievances but the polluters know what levers to pull to make the government do their bidding and delay the court-ordered changeover to CNG.

American automobile companies and their lobbyists have for many years fought against the efforts of environmentalists to promote efficient engines with greater mileage. Avoiding the additional costs involved in R&D seemed a more attractive choice, and politicians, mindful of the auto workers' union campaign contributions, were willing to shield car companies from pressure to change. Ultimately, amid last year's record-high oil prices, consumers provided the decisive push, voting with their wallets for more fuel-efficient foreign cars. Facing bankruptcy, America's auto majors and their unions turned to Washington for succour.

The help has come but with strings attached. The restructuring of the US auto industry is to be overseen by a 'car czar' with expertise in 'energy efficiency, environmental protection and environmental stabilisation'. Detroit got the message: the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last week saw US carmakers abandon their usual razzmatazz of glitzy, high-performance sports cars to showcase 'green' electric and hybrid models.

Kolkata's entrepreneurs do not lack for ideas as to how both the auto and the environment might be saved.

In October last year, the West Bengal Green Energy Development Corporation and Tara International, a developer of battery-operated automobiles, submitted proposals to convert auto-rickshaws to run on batteries that could propel the vehicles for 200km on a charge of eight hours. Even the state transport minister was reportedly impressed with the demonstration.

But, as usual, political calculations prevailed over environment concerns. The government has yet to move on providing loans to auto-rickshaw operators for conversion. In anticipation of the Jan 1 deadline for the ban to take effect, several banks were ready with loans but so far they have had no takers. Short of receiving contempt of court notices, Kolkata's politicians seem reluctant to turn their backs on influential constituents, even if other, less strident, voters suffer as a result.

Whether in Detroit or Kolkata, short- term political gain will trump the graver, long-term issue of climate change until politicians and businesses are forced to the wall.

The author is director of publications at the Yale Centre for the Study of Globalisation and editor of YaleGlobal Online.

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