Thursday, December 31, 2015

the government as polluter

In a couple of days, the Delhi government will begin the experiment of having cars ply on the roads on specified days depending upon the registration number. The objective is to bring down the number of vehicles on Delhi roads so as to combat pollution ----- a laudable objective, we would all agree, but being pursued in a rather short sighted and ad hoc manner.

We are all familiar with the oft repeated ( but nevertheless valid) observations that neither Delhi nor the neighbouring cities such as Gurgaon, Faridabad and NOIDA have the public transport infrastructure or the levels of security to enable a significant percentage of those who live and/or work in Delhi to make the shift from cars to public transport , that the NCR is increasingly becoming oriented towards car owners with roads getting widened and flyovers getting built, that the concerns of pedestrians and cyclists are routinely dismissed in town design, and that the dominant culture today is one of consumerism which urges one to splurge on bigger and less fuel efficient cars if one can and encourages one to own multiple cars.

What I would love to ask the Delhi government is whether it has attempted to form an estimate of the number of cars that are owned/hired/run by the Union and State governments, the municipal authorities, the local civic administration, and the courts, public sector undertakings etc . Are these CNG vehicles? Can they be retro fitted to run on CNG? Can new purchases not be mandatorily of CNG cars? Have the governments, municipal authorities and civic administration considered devising systems which enable working from home? Are office buildings being rented/purchased in clusters so that the movement of files and persons ( which obviously involves the use of cars) can be minimised? Is the use of office cars for personal/ family errands being monitored and penalised? One can safely assert without any possibility of being proved wrong that the answer to all these questions is No. One can also safely hazard that the reason for the answer being No is the mind set that places the bureaucracy in a charmed circle, near - immune from the considerations of economy that influence the decision making of prudent home makers and profit driven businesses.

On a related note, do government organisations review their own work so as to determine whether an organisation has outlived its utility and needs to be wound up, or at least trimmed so as to become leaner ? Announcements regarding the setting up of new government bodies are common, those to do with the winding up of government organisations are rare, notwithstanding the fact that socio-economic changes ( which are currently taking place at a rapid rate) invariably result in some functions and organisations becoming redundant. Governments keep expanding, and so does the environmental cost of ensuring the mobility of government personnel.

The Delhi Chief Minister says that he and other Ministers will car pool to reach office. Will the bureaucracy? Or the judiciary? I for one look forward to the day when the district commissioner or metropolitan magistrate relinquish the sarkaari car and the "gunman" who accompanies them in the vehicle. I don't see it happening in the near future.

One near-criminal use of government owned/hired cars is to transport files ---- it could be a single file which is "urgently" needed and is therefore dispatched by car by a subordinate organisation to the office of a superior authority. Quite apart from the reckless disregard of economy, the environmental cost is not even a consideration when files are thus dispatched. If tomorrow a fiat were to be issued that files will under no circumstances be dispatched from one office to another via car, there would be an overnight jump in efficiency and systems solutions so as to ensure that the information contained in files is easily accessible and retrievable even without the file being physically available.

There is no empirical data available which could help one ascertain the environmental impact of government cars but even if it were a not very significant percentage, what is of great significance is that the issue of the environmental cost of cars would itself get more careful consideration and perhaps a change in the problem solving approach if it were ensured that the such ad hoc solutions as having cars with specified registration numbers ply on the roads on specified days and the resultant inconvenience are equally the lot of levels of government officials.

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