Many hopes rested on the Group of 20. The sherpas of its leaders have held many expensive meetings. They were expected to make the world crisis-proof. They may well have succeeded, in so far as imploding economies starting from Iceland and going on through Greece through Spain have not brought the world down; but this is better attributed to the helping hand of fellow European powers than to international cooperation.
The Indian economy is plumbing new depths; in spite of the prime ministerís vaunted connections, there is no chance of any help from his friends abroad of a collective rescue or even an occasional stimulus. In the circumstances, it is time that the government began to think of taking some initiative on its own instead of waiting for succour from abroad. A substantial proportion of Indiaís balance of payments deficit arises from its insatiable thirst for imported oil. Oil prices, which are largely determined by the government, are just about a third of what they are in Europe. The difference is not due to any difference in oil import prices; it is not the case that Arabs sell oil to their eastern neighbour any more cheaply than they do to Europeans. The low prices are entirely due to low taxes. If the Centre raised duties on liquid fuels, people would use public transport more and make fewer trips by car. It is perhaps too much to expect that the Central government will shake off its reluctance to act. But local governments have a golden opportunity here. A number of British cities have taken the initiative. London has a charge on cars driving in from outside. France has excellent autoroutes which make intercity travel a pleasure; it is little known that it collects a tax on the toll that motorists pay to use those smooth, straight highways. So action has already begun in other countries to prepare them for the day when oil runs out.
More radical steps are also being thought of. Britainís Liberal Democratic Party would like to announce a ban now on vehicles running on petrol and diesel oil from 2040; after that, there would be only electric and low-carbon cars on the roads. And it wants to impose a tax on the use of roads ó not the annual licensing fees that cars and trucks pay in most countries, but a tax that would accrue any time a vehicle was detected on the roads by ubiquitous sensors. Motor vehicles are ordered off the roads of Bogota on all holidays till 2 pm; thousands of people come out to walk or cycle without the fear of being run down. The idea should be particularly welcome in Calcutta, which harbours some of the worst anti-pedestrian driving in the world. Its people would give anything to be able to wander as fancy takes them on just one morning or two in the week.