Change cannot be brought about by fiat alone; it needs a holistic approach and a buy-in from all stakeholders
Union Minister for Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari is a man in a hurry. And a man running out of patience. This was clearly evident last week when he rattled the automobile industry by bluntly threatening manufacturers to switch to electric vehicles and alternative fuels or get “bulldozed”. He went on to even hope that India’s booming automobile sector grew at a less frenetic pace. If the current pace of growth continued, Gadkari said he would be forced to add one more lane to every national highway in the country, which would cost ₹80,000 crore. The minister used the same expression the next day, this time to warn errant State-owned transport undertakings who were told to shape up and reform or get bulldozed.
The minister’s impatience is understandable. India Inc has been notorious in the past for resisting change, particularly that which requires a massive change of mindset — not to speak of investments — on its part. Urban India has some of the worst air quality in the world, something that electric vehicles will help improve substantially. And India’s import bill of ₹7 lakh crore per year would be considerably reduced by a switch to bio-fuels. His ire against public transport undertakings is equally understandable. As the minister himself pointed out, their “buses are dirty, bus stops dirtier, they run up huge losses and pollute the environment”, and fail to provide basic quality of service. Even the desire to see some de-growth in auto sales is not so outrageous. India’s roads are a choked mess, with average traffic speeds in the metros, according to a study by cab aggregator Ola, a miserable 22.7 kmph. Most cities are running out of space to park the vehicles they have, leave alone drive them. The public transport system is a mess, with the transport ministry estimating that the system is currently short of 2,20,000 buses. Lack of quality and reliability have forced an explosion in personal transportation — a staggering 48,000 two-wheelers were sold every day last fiscal — leading ever mounting pressure on road infrastructure and air quality.
But if change could be brought about through fiat, we would be a very different country. A paradigm shift like moving from fossil fuel to electric vehicles requires massive planning, even more massive expenditure on technology and infrastructure development, and a participatory approach to execution. Our roads cannot be decongested simply by making some vehicles illegal. Alternative solutions, and adequate, affordable mass transport, will also have to be developed. An industry which has already invested billions and created tens of thousands of jobs needs to be given adequate time and policy support to make the kind of change needed. The Government, on its part, needs to back its statement of intent with a clear roadmap of policy change and infrastructure development. Otherwise, “bulldozing” will only leave behind rubble.