Saturday, 2 May 2015

Government’s War against Non Polluting Vehicles

Even before the National Green Tribunal’s knee jerk crack on polluting vehicles, the NGT passed a far more absurd sultani farman, on February 17, 2015 banning street vendors and cycle rickshaws from select areas in Delhi on the ground that “such offenders add to the pollution of environment and degrade the air quality to the extent which is very injurious to human health, they should be liable to pay compensation in terms of section 15 of the NGT Act 2010.”

By what stretch of imagination can cycle rickshaws and vending carts be accused of causing air pollution?  Cycle rickshaws are in fact the most eco-friendly modes of short distance transport.  They don’t consume petrol or diesel nor do they cause sound pollution.  A rickshaw charges a fraction of what a taxi would charge for same commute.   Similarly, mobile street vendors use non motorized carts to carry items of daily necessity – such as fruits, vegetables and other household goods – to the doorstep of the consumer.  They save us time and money as well as the bother of having to go on motor vehicles for buying daily requirements from crowded markets where parking is a nightmare.  Since their overhead costs are low, hawkers sell goods at lower prices than charged in established shops.  They use mainly natural light and hence save on power.  By contrast, regular stores use fans, coolers, ACs in addition to numerous lights to ensure better display of goods.

MANUSHI has battled for nearly two decades to convince authorities that cycle rickshaws and street vendors deserve to be encouraged if we want to control carbon emissions.

Unfortunately, municipal policies in all cities and town of India have kept street vendors and cycle rickshaws trapped in a web of illegality through restrictive licensing policies.  This makes them easy targets of clearance operations and confiscation drives– which are used by the police, municipal authorities and politicians to extort hundreds of crores by way of bribes.

In response to public hearings organized by MANUSHI, the then Prime Minister Vajpayi had announced a new rational market friendly policy for street vendors and cycle rickshaws in August 2001.  

But Vajpayis’s colleagues in the BJP worked hard to sabotage implementation of that policy.  However, MANUSHI persisted and managed to wrest from the NDA government a National Policy for Street Vendors in 2004 even though the government made no attempt to actually implement it.  It took another ten years before the UPA enacted the Street Vendors Protection of Livelihood Act in 2014.  It has many weaknesses but it at least mandates that vendors cannot be evicted arbitrarily.  Instead, they be given and given secure places in duly designated hawking zones.  Since it has not been implemented on any scale street vendors are still hostage to extortion rackets.

The cycle rickshaw battle went through another route.  Frustrated by resistance of the concerned authorities to dismantle the License Quota Raid Raj as envisaged in PM Vajpayee’s new policy, MANUSHI approached the High Court of Delhi in 2007 challenging the many lawless and unconstitutional provisions governing the operation of cycle rickshaws which enabled the police and municipal employees to confiscate and destroy cycle rickshaws at will.  Every year at least 60,000 rickshaws were being destroyed and many more released after paying hefty fines and bribes.

On 10 February 2010, the Delhi High Court declared the existing rickshaw policy as unconstitutional and struck down unrealistic quotas for licensing. It prohibited confiscation and destruction of rickshaws and ordered chief secretary Delhi Government to constitute a Special Task Force to decide on a new policy that treats NMVs as an integral part of road traffic by providing “equitable” road space for them. I was a member of that Task Force headed by the then chief secretary Rakesh Mehta who did a great job of finalizing in record time a new policy and legislative framework for NMVs.  However, the police and municipal authorities were perverse enough to challenge it in the Supreme Court which fortunately fully upheld the High Court order.
Since then it has been an uphill and frustrating battle to get the new policy implemented which requires open registration of NMVs as well as dedicated tracks for NMVs and proper footpaths for pedestrians.  However, both the police as well municipal authorities are hell bent on preventing this from happening despite the fact that a special bench of the High Court is monitoring its progress.

We are told, given the congestion in Delhi, there is no space for NMV lanes or hawker zones.  But the authorities have no difficulty in finding space for 6-8 lane motorways even though this has meant that the city is choking with petrol and diesel fumes. 

Likewise the city governors can’t find place for hawkers though they are bending themselves backward to earmark huge tracts for car parking either free or at a nominal charge.  Most vendors take less space than what’s needed for a medium sized car and would gladly pay the authorities 3-4 times the amount car owners pay for occupying prime locations.  The space occupied by a car becomes dead for all others whereas street vendors create convenience for customers, generate their own livelihood as well as social wealth by providing low cost outlets for farm produce as well as low priced goods produced by small scale industry.

All first world cities have pedestrianized city centers and encourage cycling by having safe dedicated NMV tracks in order to reduce the use of motor vehicles.  All Asian cities like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore have well organized hawker zones which are huge tourist attraction. They all have wide and beautifully maintained footpaths that make walking a pleasurable experience.  By contrast, both cycling and walking on Indian roads, in small town as well as big cities, is a nightmarish experience because our government thinks only of motor vehicles when designing roads.  There is an active hostility towards those who follow a non-polluting life style-either out of choice or compulsion.  Is it then any surprise that they very act of breathing in India has become a high risk proposition?  

First published in The Indian Express under the title Death by Breath: And malice towards the non-polluterApril 21, 2015, 

Madhu Kishwar

Madhu Kishwar
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