Fuel price hike: Paying for carbon profligacy

Just as the media is waking up to the reality of a bleak energy future, the UPA government has done the inevitable. The price of petrol is up by Rs. 5 a litre, diesel by Rs. 3 and cooking gas by Rs. 50. This rise may still not shake the dollar-denominated jet setting types, whose ranks have grown in recent years. After all, BMW laments the lack of visibility of its vehicles among this class, and Tata Motors must feel genuine pride only when Jaguars and Land Rovers scatter the gravel on our bumpy roads to signal the rise of a tumescent India. The Tata Nano’s birth is also keenly awaited, but it is coming into the world in troubled times.

But the average Indian, whether in Dravidian land or in Aryan land, both rotting at the core, cannot take comfort from this muscular Bharat. Many realise that it is these carbon profligates that have given the case for the global oil industry, and their shady supporters in some governments, to speculate and pump up the price of oil.

The energy wastrels who strut about in India and elsewhere have been pushing a model of growth where individual consumption, mostly non-essential, luxurious and hedonistic, is the barometer of economic progress. Sadly enough, this is a Catch 22 situation. There are so many Indians that if they all do the same, along with their Chinese brethren, it gives the international speculators an even stronger excuse to raise prices.

What can be the effect of this price spiral? The hope would be that the crisis would reach a flash point where electoral democracy will push our policymakers into doing sensible things. That means improving the mobility of people through tough measures to improve public transport, while making the carbon profligates pay. 

But are our leaders sensible enough? The experience so far, and the clout of the automotive lobby makes it appear that the threshold may not be reached soon. It may take 200 dollars a barrel to make progress on that agenda.

What is scary, however, is the misplaced optimism that the peak oil prices will dip, and then there will be relief. There is no argument on what is pushing up global prices. Increasing petro-product consumption in China and India are now routinely cited. In fact, current rates of automotive growth indicate that China will have more cars than the US, in 17 years.

This is the time to abandon carbon profligacy. No one will advocate a downgraded quality of life. What needs to be done is to improve the quality of our public services, our buses, our trains, taxis, autorickshaws and our information systems. Our transport systems are hopelessly antiquated, under-invested and corrupt. If Manmohan Singh, P Chidambaram and the rest can clean it up, by forcing State Governments to invest some of their money in such modernising under law the situation can improve (the states do not have responsibility in ensuring energy supply and to mitigate climate change, so they must abide by a compulsory national initiative that ensures both). It would be healthy to set a target of compulsory introduction of 5,000 buses in each metro, with a prescribed operational schedule and an annual real growth rate of 10 per cent.

All urban train systems must double their operations, which is possible with current signalling technologies. Integration of trains and buses must be introduced summarily by law, with operational costs met by the State government through appropriate taxes or Central funding. Buying tickets from poorly motivated and untrained conductors, a deterrent to using transport networks among the middle class, must be replaced by ticketing systems that are off-bus, oriented towards daily, weekly, monthly and yearly pass-based travel.

Where private bus systems are operational, they should be given subsidised fuel and compelled to operate a prescribed number of trips with automatic logging through Global Positioning Systems in order to ensure compliance. If they fail, a nationalised network has to be introduced.

The autorickshaw operations in several cities today do not meet either market principles, or regulatory norms. It is time that they were also given an offer to run according to rules, with a defined fuel supply at lower rates, and with strict enforcement.

The bottomline is that doing nothing is not an option for Manmohan Singh, or any of our leaders.

Winston Churchill said in his time that we would be ruled by men of straw who would slap a variety of poorly conceived taxes on a malnourished mass of people. Many Indians would say that was an observation born out of frustration at a successful people charting their own destiny, freed from the Empire. But looking at leaders of neo-liberal India, with their complete disdain for public welfare, public services, public infrastructure and their wholesale corruption, even in the face of democratic compulsions, many might feel the statement has a ring of truth in it.



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