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India’s mobility merchants

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Urban demand for automobiles and a government intent on road-building to feed that demand, never mind the alternatives and energy implications, are the subject of my recent article in the Economic & Political Weekly. It builds on a post I wrote here in January 2010.

Hoarding cluster in Mumbai, Maharashtra, to launch a new car

Hoarding cluster in Mumbai, Maharashtra, to launch a new car

The all-round optimism for a decade of automobile manufacturing requires an assurance that the infrastructure-building commitment and investment will not slacken. That assurance comes from a comprehensive ‘Master Plan’ prepared for the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways which advocates a sprawling ‘Indian National Expressway Network’. The final project report of this master plan was released by the ministry in November 2009, only two months before the 10th Auto Expo.

This master plan contains the rationale for and routes to comprise a vast expressway network of 18,600 kilometres, to be built in three phases each concluding in 2012, 2017 and 2022, and which proposes to employ both public-private partnership and annuity modes of financing and project execution. Moreover, the master plan seeks the creation of a National Expressway Authority of India to oversee this gigantic task, which will have extensive and over-riding powers and amongst whose important functions will be the expediting of land acquisition for the many sections.

Finally, the master plan has called for “innovative and feasible measures to improve the financial viability (including ploughing back of profit generated from real estate development, commercial development of wastelands etc)” to finance the 60 different sections of the proposed expressways network.

These two developments – the underwriting by the Government of India, through the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways and associated ministries and departments; and the growth of the automobile market in India to which commitments have been made by industry – taken together have presented us worrying new evidence concerning the kind of development we will see in urban and urbanising India over the next decade. There are a host of related concerns:

Autorickshaws in Vadodara, Gujarat

Autorickshaws in Vadodara, Gujarat

(1) On transport and public transit alone, the automobile-centric practices and policies embodied in the 10th Auto Expo, the Automotive Mission Plan and the national expressways network master plan push alternative modes of transportation (including the high-potential bus rapid transit systems, such as is now being introduced in Ahmedabad) into the background.

(2) From both government and from industry there is very little recognition of the possible scenarios that can govern the availability of fuels (certainly of fossil fuels until 2022) needed to fulfil the 10th Auto Expo’s consumerist theme of ‘Mobility For All’. This fundamental linkage should have hit home, for amidst announcements of new models came the regular bulletin from the Ministry of Commerce which stated that India’s crude oil imports rose 6.1% in November 2009, climbing to 10.48 million metric tons from 9.88 million tons a year earlier.

(3) India is already the fourth largest aggregate emitter of greenhouse gases worldwide and the country needs to be far more creative and visionary about creating a low-carbon future for its citizens. Industry and individual citizens will increasingly be called upon to be responsible for their manufacturing and consuming patterns relating to emissions and resource use. However, neither in the practice nor in policies government the automobile industries sector and the roads and highways part of infrastructure is there discussion about emissions equity in the country.

(4) Despite the efforts being made to integrate urban planning and transportation alternatives under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, the pro-automobile policies pay negligible attention to the inelastic demand created for cars in India, which are kept at a high pitch by the automobile (and financing) industry through extensive advertising. There are no significant measures, whether regulatory or persuasive, to temper this demand. Moreover, the huge direct demand for land (for use as expressways, highways, widened roads, etc), and the indirect impacts of change in land use that will impact agriculture most of all are externalised costs that both rural and urban public are already bearing, and which appear in no real costs analysis of a pro-automobile mobility choice.

Read the full article in the February 27, 2010, issue of the Economic & Political Weekly. The EPW pdf is here too.

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  1. […] If the wealthy Kolhapur residents reach their target of 200 for the Mercedes Benz mass purchase, that deal will be worth about 870 million rupees and together, the luxury auto-obsessed groups in Aurangabad and Kolhapur will have given the Pune-based dealers of Mercedes Benz and BMW business worth 1,920 million rupees. Who are the people who have made these purchase decisions in the name of collective status? Businessmen, young entrepreneurs, politicians, lawyers, doctors and other professionals, say the news reports. [That there is a powerful 'status' logic at work in these two cities has been touched upon in an earlier post on the subject of automobiles in India.] […]


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