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Clear smog over Indian Economy

NOVEMBER 15, 2017

By TIOL Edit Team

THE smog over Delhi and adjoining States has brought ease of doing business (EoDB) to a grinding halt for many businesses hit by knee-jerk orders of judicial and quasi-judicial authorities.

Will such fiats get accentuated in the coming years? What impact such orders, coupled with other formats of judicial activism against projects and policies, would have on Indian economy? Would Indian growth story be permanently stunted by mis governance just as babies born to famished, poor mothers?

Modi Government must address these issues by taking credible steps in cooperative federalism. It must get over the hangover of celebrations over India's pole-vault in EoDB rank by 30 steps in World Bank's Doing Business 2018 report. It should realize that certain sections of economy are battling for survival just as citizens are gasping for fresh air.

Construction business in Delhi and adjoining cities such as Noida and Gurgaon has been brought to halt. Petcoke and furnace oil-using industries have to suspend their operations till they switchover to cleaner fuels – an option which is not easy exercise without risk for varied reasons. Use of electricity generators has been banned, except for specified exempted categories. The transportation of goods has been made further challenging and time-consuming.

All these bans/restrictions have affected economic growth, employment and revenue collection. No one in the Government-Judicial system seems to be bothered about these annual smoggy constraints on right to work & earn a living. This year, the shock to businesses started in October with a sudden ban on sale of firecrackers by the Supreme Court a few days before Diwali festival. This obviously hurt fireworks industry and its wholesale dealers, leave aside work opportunities in retailing crackers.

Factor into these constraints the fact that new/expansion project bans have not been lifted/eased in industrial and mining hubs dubbed as Critically Polluted Areas (CPAs). This is one of the major factors for slowdown in capital investments.

Factor in also the fact that goods and service tax (GST) flux would persist for several more months as GST council tinkers with tax structure, rates and regulations.

All these manmade uncertainties over economic growth should be studied calmly to look for way forward. First concern first. The judicial orders banning/suspending an economic activity must provide for compensation to daily wage earners rendered jobless. The verdict should also specify norms for treatment of loan repayment defaults by units affected by ban/suspension diktats.

The judiciary must understand that right to breath cannot be sustained for long with the curtailed generation of income and tax revenue. It must understand all abrupt curbs on economic activities can be avoided if the authorities are goaded at right time to prevent generation of smog.

Instead of asking businesses to foot the bill (through closures/suspensions) for smog, the Judiciary should penalize ministers and civil servants for their failure to govern well.

Crop residue burning, which is identified as a main culprit of smog, is completely avoidable. Technological and agronomic alternatives are available to avoid stubble burning. The fault lies with the Centre and the States that don't want to spend a few thousand crore rupees on implementation of alternatives. The National Policy for Management of Crop Residues, unveiled in 2014, exists on paper.

The second major cause for winter smog is festivities-linked burning of fire crackers. This ought to be stopped and simultaneously substituted by laser fireworks to reduce job losses. Temple-visiting politicians should urge their supporters to align religious rituals/ceremonies with constraints created by population bomb.

The third major cause for winter smog that no one wants to talk is smoke released by slums that primarily use firewood and trash as cooking fuel. It is an anathema for politicians and judiciary to treat poverty as major cause of air, water and solid pollution.

The Governments must move beyond paying lip-service to poverty eradication. It must regulate migration of homeless workers to cities. They should be accommodated in high-rise, rented dormitories equipped with LPG and civic amenities. No person should be allowed to squat on footpaths on empty plots to create slums.

The authorities should shed their obsession for photo opportunities under Swachh Bharat Mission. They should instead focus on timely collection and processing of municipal solid wastes. Trash-burning should be made a non-bailable offence.

They and judiciary should both consider most-bashed automobiles as means of economic mobility. They provide safety especially to the women, who are regularly groped in crowded buses, metros and shared autos.

If the Government wants to stunt growth of automobiles, then it must allow automobile makers time to look for other business avenues. Simultaneously, it should invest heavily in both public transport and law & order enforcement.

The Governments must clear roads of overloaded, slow-moving rickshaws and carts that serve as cheap means of transport. Half the city roads have remain permanently blocked by rickshaws and three-wheelers. They choke roads along metro stations. They create traffic jams and are thus a major cause of automobile pollution.

The last but not the least the Government should inject some credibility into smart city projects in which tonnes of money is being sunk. Smart cities would remain a fraud on Indian public as long as Government persists with potholed roads, uncovered manholes and turns blind eye to vendors grabbing roads for hawking their ware.

The Government must lay crystal-clear, enforceable road-map for pollution-free cities whose number should be increased by manifold to ease pressure on mega cities.

All said and done, smog is nothing a shameful manifestation of misgovernance, in which the Centre, the States and local governance bodies, are equal partners. Smog must not be allowed to maim economic growth, accentuate unemployment and underemployment and thus deepen social discontent.