Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Congestion Tax OK BUT...

The Delhi State government is evidently taking advice from Mayor Ken Livingston of London, on how to deal with global warming. The Mayor will probably encourage Delhi’s government to use a congestion tax to reduce the number of cars that run on Delhi roads. However, what the Delhi bureaucrats should keep in mind is the fact that London can afford to tax private transport because it has (compared to Delhi) an excellent transport system. You can easily plan your journey online from one part of the UK to another, without a hitch. However, Delhi just does not have the same facilities. Our Blueline and DTC buses are better known as agents of manslaughter than as a part of a well-thought-out public transport system. And a very small section of the Metro has been completed to date. So, insisting that people entering Delhi from Noida, Gurgaon, Ghaziabad or Faridabad pay a tax on their cars (something close to Rs. 1,000--it’s about £10-15 in the UK) is not a good idea at this moment. Let’s see if Delhi can set up a public transport system by 2010--I think that will do a lot to bring down the number of cars on Delhi roads.

Another reason why I wouldn’t go for a congestion tax in Delhi just now is because the Delhi government needs to clean up the Transport department. Evidently, someone in the transport department has been taking bribes from Blueline operators, which is how these operators have continued to function despite High Court strictures. This is the talk of the town. The Transport department needs to be cleaned up--the people taking bribes need to be kicked out--before any changes can take place.

I’ve often wondered why it is that India has such a bribe-friendly culture, especially in the lower ranks of its bureaucracy. You might occasionally come across such a person abroad--someone who’s willing to turn a blind eye for a few pounds or dollars more--but the habit of "naming and shaming" is so prevalent abroad that any such official would have to be crazy or desperate to do such a thing. Here, taking a bribe is an everyday affair--when you come back after a long stay abroad and have sent the bulk of your belongings as unaccompanied baggage, the small fry in the customs office (located near the international airport) are likely to ask you for money for chai-paani and are grateful if you hand them Rs. 10-20. It’s not because he feels you have broken the law and he is promising to keep silent for the little bit of money you give him--it’s because he’s in the habit of asking people for money!

And it’s no wonder that corruption has flourished in India--of the numerous scams reported so far, how many have actually been tried in a court of law? How many ministers have gone to jail for taking bribes? How many bureaucrats have been dismissed for doing the same? The Army reacted in an exemplary manner once Tehelka made public the findings of Operation West End, but the politicians and the government machinery turned against Tehelka, not against those found to be taking bribes in a defence deal.

When you look at our judicial system, what strikes you is its slowness. The Uphaar case has taken ten years to reach a verdict. And the Ansals might just get away with two years in jail, never mind the fact that 59 people were killed in a fire caused due to their negligence. If this is the state of India’s judicial system, no wonder no politician or bureaucrat caught taking a bribe has ever been tried or convicted. No wonder they continue to rob the people. And no wonder we have the governance and services we have to date.This brings me to the subject of the Maoist insurgency in our poorest states--Jharkhand and Chhatisgarh. This insurgency is a result of the Indian government’s refusal to settle the issue of land rights in these states. Another reason for this insurgency is the fact that the tribal population living in these states has been exploited by non-tribal contractors and businessmen, and the State and Central government has done nothing to stop this exploitation. Now, we’ll have to gather intelligence, send in the security forces into these areas and hope that they do not indulge in human rights abuses while ending the insurgency. It’s easier said than done.

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I work as a freelance editor and writer in New Delhi. 


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