Safeguards against autos

  • 14/01/1998

They dot Delhi's roads like beetles, belching fumes as they go around ferrying commuters. They are the autos or three-wheelers of Delhi, a highly polluting vehicle with a two-stroke engine. The population of three-wheelers in Delhi grew at an alarming rate to reach what the government estimates to be around 83,000. While everybody agrees that the autos are a major source of pollution in the city, the government estimates regarding the three-wheeler population are questionable. The actual number of three-wheelers on the road may be far less because a lot of them have stopped plying even though their licences have not been cancelled.

In a novel judgement the Supreme Court has decided to freeze the population of three-wheelers in the city by banning the fresh registration of three-wheel scooter rickshaws (tsrs) in Delhi. The order by chief justice J S Verma, justice B N Kirpal and justice V N Khare stated that it would be in the interest of the environment to freeze the number of tsrs. Therefore on the basis of that the court ordered that no fresh permits with respect to tsrs be granted except in the case where an existing working tsr was to be replaced by a new tsr.

The tsr was a success for a very simple reason in Delhi. It provided one with the fundamental convenience of a taxi at half the price. That it was highly polluting was totally ignored, as environment till very recently figured very low on the priority of planners in India. The move is a good one but it has one drawback. Freezing the population of three wheelers may not be the long-term answer to the problem, even if it is the short-term answer.

The banning will result in less vehicles being added to the fleet of total vehicles on the roads. This is obviously a thing to be applauded. But how much of an effect will it have? Old or new, autorickshaws are nevertheless personalised transport, and the public should be encouraged to move away from such a mode of transport. If the move is intended to slowly phase out three-wheelers then it is good.

The government had earlier come up with the proposal to take 15-year-old autorickshaws off the roads. It had then reversed this stand. The Delhi transport minister Rajender Gupta said that the autorickshaw driver's livelihood had to be considered. If that be the logic, then by banning the registration of new three-wheelers, we are depriving many of the chance of earning a livelihood.

Besides, by banning the registration of new vehicles, the sc may be encouraging owners to ply vehicles that are very old and thus highly polluting and would have been otherwise taken off the roads long ago.

What will be the impact of the order on the pollution levels of the city. The major culprits are the old vehicles with two-stroke engines. Banning new vehicles will have very little impact. To make a dent, we have to take old polluting vehicles off the roads, improve engine technology, improve fuel quality, improve road conditions and traffic flow.

Rather than freeze the registration of tsrs the court would have done better to pass a judgement on industry forcing it to introduce four-stroke engines in tsrs. The role of industry also does not end with the manufacture of tsrs. The problem of two-stroke engines which are highly polluting is an Indian problem because it is in India that the two-stroke two-wheeler population is extremely high. There should be a phase out programme for old two-wheelers too. Two-stroke engines should also be eventually replaced with four-stroke ones.

It must also not be forgotten that two and three-wheelers have their own advantages. They consume less fuel than cars. They are cheaper to make and cheaper to maintain and they are the mainstay of the Indian middle class which as yet has not moved into the motorcar segment.

The crackdown on three-wheelers may have a negative effect. It may promote the use of taxis and permit the taxi population to grow. Old and highly polluting vehicles may find their way into this profession merely because it may become cheaper to introduce them into the business than buy a new three-wheeler. Therefore similar restrictions must be placed on car taxis as well. Unless that is done the purpose behind the exercise may be defeated.

What is therefore needed is a wholesome plan of action regarding the vehicular population of the city. The government must immediately launch a drive to drive out old and unfit vehicles, scooters, tsrs and cars from the city if they want a substantial improvement in the quality of the ambient urban air. Which also brings us to the quality of the buses used in the city. The buses used are actually fitted with truck engines. These are excellent for long haul drives but unfit for short haul drives where the emissions from these vehicles go up considerably. Therefore the government has to clean up its fleet of public transport as well. Otherwise the move to ban tsrs will have no effect upon the environment.

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