Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Avoiding Governing By Disruption

A well-considered approach to infrastructure and congestion is likely to be more beneficial than flailing at problems.

 Shyam Ponappa   |   December 31, 2015

There are better ways to improve our seemingly primordial problems of infrastructurethan having populists play at reforms as though they were board games. Issues like pollution and traffic in Delhineed urgent attention, but they have been brewing for so long that there's no use in merely flailing at them. Impetuous executive or judicial orders like the odd-even numbers scheme for cars or prohibiting diesel car registration result in massive disruption and loss with few benefits, going by many recent assessments. Also, consider that some long-term initiatives such as the Delhi Metro are successful, although there have been monumental failures too, such as the Bus Rapid Transit System. But actions affecting infrastructure have such huge unintended consequences that people should be spared experiments with insufficient preparation. That's at the city level, although Delhi's scale is like a country in population and complexity. Then, there are the higher order complexities of the national-scale transportation, energy, or communications, just by way of essential services.

The starting point needs to be in our very approach to resolving problems: getting the facts and the fundamentals right, rather than erecting layer upon layer of "band-aids" that collapse in cascading piles. Also, making reasonable efforts at a thorough, informed approach in devising goal-driven systems and procedures. There's no escaping complexity and possible mistakes because of our sheer size, vast numbers, and myriad legacies. However, a well-considered, rules-based approach with less room for discretion is more likely to work, provided incentives and penalties promote their acceptance through reduced manipulation and corruption.

There's little doubt in the merits of reducing diesel vehicles for private use, and of introducing cleaner fuels with more stringent emissions controls, while enhancing public transport. Equally, these need reasonable time frames, with plans and coordination between fuel suppliers, manufacturers, and lawmakers. These are the issues where our social, political, legal, and administrative energies need to be focussed. The requirement is to develop the protocols to supply the right quality of fuel and vehicles, in phases - with the introduction of more stringent emissions controls (BS IV to begin with, corresponding to Euro IV, transitioning to more stringent EPA norms when feasible) over a reasonable time period.

This implies coordination of a high order to balance mitigation with growth, because of the way the economy affects living conditions. The automotive sector is a major engine of growth and the economy is stumbling, regardless of the hype. Unthinking or ill-considered actions - as in introducing car number restrictions without the requisite support of public transport, ridesharing and systematic, phased preparation - will create so much chaos through tailbacks and traffic jams that the detriments through productivity losses and pollution are likely to far outweigh the benefits from the reduced number of vehicles.

Enforcing Rules-Based Procedures

There's also the need to specify detailed solution protocols or algorithms - steps that are simple and pragmatic - for replicable results. The requirement is not only to design workable procedures, but also to follow the protocols, the steps that lead to the requisite solutions, with no wiggle room. Many of us in India behave as though adherence to discipline is antithetical to democratic freedoms, and that jugaad, short-cuts and exceptions are effective ways out.

For instance, consider the problem of people driving the wrong way against traffic to back away from highway entrances, or to avoid going some distance to make a U-turn. It helps to remind ourselves how other democratic societies deal with such issues. For instance, parking lots or controlled-access lanes in many parts of the world have metal spikes or blades operated by electricity or springs as part of their design, to prevent people from driving in the wrong direction.
Shyam Ponappa: Avoiding governing by disruption

While the tyre-shredding threat seems draconian, such systems are widely deployed and accepted where needed across the "free world". We rarely see such devices here, but imagine their salutary effect on habits like driving down the wrong side if there were recessed "tyre-shredders" along the way, or at least a stiff fine triggered by a surveillance camera.

In a similar vein, Delhi is reviving the notion of vacuuming streets with vehicular cleaners, as street sweeping is a significant contributor to suspended particulates.1 Press reports suggest, however, that a major reason previous attempts failed except in the limited confines of the New Delhi Municipal Corporation("Lutyens Delhi") was because parked vehicles made roads inaccessible. There were other problems too, such as broken and uneven surfaces, but parked vehicles preventing street cleaning would be unimaginable in cities in most parts of the world. The vehicles would have been towed if they were parked on the street to be cleaned, and the cleaning would have been done.

In other words, the laws and procedures need to be followed, or enforced. Our problems stem from few of our existing laws being enforced. Yet, our political leaders are gung ho about devising new procedures or tub-thumping about catchwords and concepts, showing little interest in the humdrum details and practicalities of execution. Wouldn't it be nice, though, if the media and the press focused coverage across the board on actual performance versus bombastic promises or personal slanging matches?

A Comprehensive Long-Term Strategy

What is surprising is that there hasn't been more emphasis on boosting solar energy to replace polluting diesel generators.1 Another missing initiative is the systematic cultivation of indoor plants to mitigate the effects of atmospheric pollution, although Delhi apparently has the iconic green building that uses common plants to operate a clean air circulation system2. A comprehensive strategy needs to cover many areas in an integrated way: improve public transport, reduce diesel vehicles and high-emissions two- and four-wheelers, enhance car-pooling, improve clean power supply, reduce waste incineration, develop solar generators/inverters, among others.

shyam (no-space) ponappa at gmail dot com

1: Dust constitutes 45% of PM10, waste burning 17%, diesel generators 9%, and transport 14%. If no diesel generators run, the likely reduction in PM2.5 would be 16%: - Sarath Guttikunda




    I read alot of opposition about Modi's 100 smart city plan. Well Delhi and mumbai r the reason why Modi's plan is important. Delhi NCR has more population than Canada. U have to understand Delhi and Mumbai r too big and too expensive. It will take billions of dollar to make any effective change in these cities. Instead u can pick a couple dozen cities in Bihar, Jharkahnd, UP, Bengal(100000 population) and provide infrastructure so that they can support population of 2 million. Encourage people of delhi and mumbai to migrate there. 47 million people, just by residing in such a small area r creating pollution that will be difficult to address(on top of that indians have an in-built problem of creating a mess). U can see people through scrap but no-one picking it. The ones who pick it r ridiculed including your own PM(what is more shameful than that ?).
    December 31, 2015, ThursdayReply

  • JS

    Very well reasoned article. Unfortunately, our politicians and bureaucrats only have the time and patience for quick-fix approaches that gets them media attention. As a country, we just do not have the discipline for focused problem solving that involves analysis, small experiments, rectify mistakes, detailed planning, focused implementation, and enforcement. Education does not matter: we have an IIIT-ian at the helm of Delhi and he is seeking publicity for what is possibly an ill-thought idea. This, too, will fail just as the BRT did.
    December 31, 2015, ThursdayReply

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