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Diktats Won't Curb Pollution, Or Anything

Of the top 20 most polluted cities, 13 are in India and just 3 in China, according to a World Health Organisation report

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These are actions that would make diehard activists of Greenpeace overjoyed and clapping in approval and applause. The National Green Tribunal has struck yet again; this time it has ordered both the central and state governments of Delhi to stop buying diesel cars and also ordered a halt to diesel car and SUV registrations in Delhi till January 6, 2016. This is part of the suddenly hyperactive efforts to save Delhi from pollution. Just about a week ago, when even a handful of AAP supporters were questioning the 400% pay hike for Delhi MLAs and the watered down Jan Lokpal Bill, the government of Arvind Kejriwal had announced the "revolutionary" step #OddEven policy. Noble as the intentions might be, these moves clearly smack of executive and judicial overreach and infringe on basic freedoms of citizens.

Look at the hypocrisy over Delhi first. This author has not come across any feature or article or story that details how dozens of other cities in India are confronting dangerous levels of pollution. About six months ago, the World Health Organization published a report on the most polluted cities in the world. Of the top twenty polluted cities, 13 were in India and just 3 in China. Delhi of course topped the list. But other Indian cities identified as suffering from dangerous and life threatening levels of air pollution were Amritsar, Ludhiana, Khanna, Lucknow, Firozabad, Ahmedabad, Patna, Raipur, Allahabad, Gwalior and Kanpur. Now surely it can't be the contention of Arvind Kejriwal or the NGT that cars and diesel vehicles are the most important cause of pollution in the other cities. More importantly, has the NGT come up with an action plan- or a series of diktats- to curb pollution in these other cities? According to a study released by IIT, Kanpur, cars are responsible for about 10% of the alarming air pollution in Delhi while commercial vehicles and two wheelers lead the pack with almost 30% each. Has any thought been given to this study? For more than a decade, sensible people across India have been demanding that diesel prices should be virtually identical to petrol prices. In no other major country in the world are diesel prices so much lower than petrol prices. Surely implementing this would make more economic sense by sending the right "incentives" than bans and diktats? And anyone familiar with interiors of India away from Delhi knows how ruthlessly organized gangs "steal" heavily subsidized kerosene and divert it for use in commercial vehicles.

If diktats of the NGT, or any other executive or judicial body defy the basic laws of economics, they are bound to not only fail, but also lead to perversions (read corruption). Since 2013, the NGT has been trying to "ban" sand mining on river beds. This has been a spectacular failure as organized gangs continue to "plunder" (mine) sand with brazen audacity. Most of us still remember the notorious case of IAS officer Durga Shakti Nagpal who was "suspended" by the Uttar Pradesh government for daring to take on the sand Mafia around Noida. The fact is, construction activity needs sand and as long as roads and buildings are being constructed, sand will be in demand. Banning sand mining merely transfers this activity from the legal zone to "smuggling". Common sense economics says that mining should be allowed with effective regulation and with taxes accruing to the government. Similarly. The NGT created a flutter some time back when it banned construction in a 10 kilometer zone adjacent to the Ohkla bird sanctuary. The idea was noble: to encourage the migratory birds to keep coming to this sanctuary during winters. But at one stroke, this diktat sealed the fate of more than 75,000 under construction flats in Noida. Mercifully, better sense has prevailed.

People in authority-executive as well as judiciary- need to understand the basics of supply and demand economics. If they do. We will see less of these diktats that clearly infringe on citizen freedom without achieving any purpose.