India’s perennial protest capital, Kolkata, recently produced yet another political movement: the “auto bachao” or “save the auto” campaign. Despite echoing the cry of America’s ‘Big 3’ automobile company CEOs, who successfully lobbied Congress for a bailout, Kolkata’s campaigners have a rather different beneficiary. The smoke-belching three-wheeler auto-rickshaws that they are attempting to ‘save’ could not look more different from the shiny, gas-guzzling SUVs and sedans produced by Detroit’s stricken giants. The natures of their respective movements are also a study in contrasts. The operators of Kolkata’s noisy and polluting auto-rickshaws made their point by burning state buses and disrupting traffic, while the managers of the US’s auto manufacturers flew into Washington DC on sleek private jets to beg Congress for a bailout. Yet beneath the vastly different battles underway to save the ‘auto’ lies a basic truth: whether in Detroit or Kolkata, saving jobs, profits and political patronage trumps saving the environment.
The violent demonstrations and the pall of smoke rising from the burning buses of Kolkata at the beginning of the year are a rerun of an old movie. Like on previous occasions, in July 2008 the High Court responded to a public-interest litigation and ordered that by 1 January 2009, older model auto-rickshaws running mostly on toxic adulterated fuel would have to be replaced by newer models running on compressed natural gas (CNG), a cleaner fuel. Unionized auto-rickshaw operators, who had long flouted emissions regulations under the protection of the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), went on a rampage, forcing the state government — which had done nothing to facilitate the transition ordered by the High Court — to plead with the court for more time. Allowing the city’s 60,000-odd auto-rickshaws to carry on polluting would exact a heavy penalty on Kolkata’s environment and the health of its residents. Last year, the city was declared the most polluted in India, with the highest number of lung cancer victims and as many as 70 per cent of its denizens suffering from respiratory ailments. Victims of pollution may not know where to direct their grievances but the polluters know what levers to pull to make the government do their bidding and delay the court-ordered changeover to CNG.
American automobile companies and their lobbyists have for many years fought against the efforts of environmentalists to promote efficient engines with greater gas mileage. Avoiding the additional costs involved in R&D seemed a more attractive choice, and politicians, mindful of the auto workers’ union support and campaign contributions, were willing to shield them from pressure to change. Ultimately, amid last year’s record high oil prices, consumers provided the inevitable decisive push, voting with their wallets for more fuel-efficient foreign cars. Facing bankruptcy, America’s auto majors and their unions turned to Washington for succor. The help has come but attached with strings for an overdue makeover. The restructuring of the US auto industry was to be overseen by a ‘car czar’ with expertise in “energy efficiency, environmental protection and environmental stabilization.” Detroit got the message: the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last week saw US carmakers abandon their usual razzmatazz of glitzy, high-performance sports cars to showcase ‘green’ electric and hybrid models.
Not that Kolkata’s entrepreneurs lack ideas about how to save the auto and the environment. In October, the West Bengal Green Energy Development Corporation and Tara International, a developer of battery-operated automobiles, submitted proposals to convert auto-rickshaws to run on batteries that could propel the vehicles for 200 km on a charge of eight hours. Even the state transport minister was reportedly impressed with the demonstration. But, as usual, political calculation has prevailed over the environment concerns. The government has yet to move on providing loans to auto-rickshaw operators for conversion. In anticipation of the 1 January deadline for the ban to take effect, several banks were ready with loans but so far they have had no takers. Short of receiving contempt of court notices, Kolkata’s politicians seem reluctant to turn their backs on influential constituents, even if other, less strident, voters suffer as a result.
Whether in Detroit or Kolkata, short term political gain trumps the graver, long-term issue of climate change until politicians and businesses are forced to the wall.
Nayan Chanda is director of publications at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization and editor of YaleGlobal Online.