Political inertia can be irreparably damaging for the lungs. The Calcutta high court seems to have lost patience with the West Bengal government. The state has been deliberating for what feels like an eternity over what to do about the old vehicles which pollute the air of the city. The government has again submitted a report to the green bench on how it plans to check automobile pollution. The basic content of the report was worked out about four years ago. And the latest report has not been able to show any implementation at all. The court has therefore given the government an ultimatum that it would have to make taxis, auto-rickshaws and old cars convert to compressed natural or liquid petroleum gas within not more than a year. There have been about 20 hearings at court over this issue, and the government’s advocate general was still pleading for more time.
This is more or less a replay of the Delhi story. But Delhi has shown that such a conversion could work eventually, and that running most vehicles on LPG or CNG does make a great deal of difference in the quality of the air. In order to maintain the deadline set by the court, the government will have to first change its predictably populist attitude to what it calls the “socio-economic” aspect of converting to gas. It is not a question of making things difficult for the “poor”, but of tightening up the system of checks and licences so that vehicle-owners, whatever their economic status, are forced to obey the pollution-related regulations. Second, the government will also have to ensure the proper supply of alternative fuels in and around the city, and this will involve major infrastructural developments which could be determined by larger political relations between India and its immediate neighbours like Bangladesh and Pakistan. So conversion is not purely a question of enforcement and punishment, but will necessitate wider arrangements regarding the supply of the new types of fuel. Finally, this is yet another instance of governmental lassitude promoting an undesirable form of judicial activism. The high court should really not have to waste its time and other resources trying to flog the government into acting up on essential measures. Traffic and pollution control should be the responsibility of the government and the civic authorities. They should be able to discharge their normal duties without having to be shouted at regularly and ineffectually by the courts. Besides, there is something terribly wrong about a populism which remains utterly and eternally blasé about the state of the air that people breathe.