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The car…and the planner

The car…and the planner
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First Published: Sun, Sep 14 2008. 09 54 PM IST

Photo: S. Burmaula / Hindustan Times
Photo: S. Burmaula / Hindustan Times
Updated: Sun, Sep 14 2008. 09 54 PM IST
New Delhi is the seat of the Central Planner. And this brand new city has been destroyed because the planner failed in his most crucial function — the ability to think ahead; the ability upon which any Five-Year Plan must be based.
Photo: S. Burmaula / Hindustan Times
The unmasking of the planner was performed by a very capitalist machine — the car. The localities for the middle class built monopolistically in New Delhi by the Delhi Development Authority are all equipped with “scooter garages”. Today, there is no place to park the owners’ cars. The Ring Roads of Delhi have been built with this scooter garage vision. They have T-junctions everywhere because in those days, when everyone waited 10 years for a scooter, this was a way of saving money on traffic lights. Today, the streets of New Delhi, jammed with fancy cars, loudly demonstrate an economic revolution brought about by free markets. And they also pass a verdict on the planner.
The Great Czar of Central Planning failed to “perceive” the automobile revolution that has been happening on our streets for more than 15 years now. He did not plan for this to happen. Perhaps he has not yet woken up to it as yet—for he rides a dowdy white Ambassador in between Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone (LBZ) and North Block. Sometimes he drives to the airport—and the roads are cleared for that.
Note that in New Delhi, the citizens have entirely moved up from the Maruti 800. All the cars on the road demonstrate the fact that the Theory of the Vicious Circle of Poverty is nonsense. But perhaps the planners believe in this nonsense. They planned for poverty. Mass poverty.
Both the car and the cellphone show which way the country is headed — and that is towards that “universal opulence” Adam Smith dreamed of. If we are to think ahead, to perceive a glimpse of the future and plan for it, then this country urgently needs to factor in the possibility and desirability of universal automobile ownership. If the domestic help has a mobile phone today, there are good chances she will have a car tomorrow. If India is to think ahead, it must think of roads for these cars, of parking, of highways and expressways. And it must do so right now. There is no time to waste.
Our cities depend on this. We need expressways built on a “hubs-and-spokes” pattern from all our major urban agglomerations — there are over 100 of them — into the surrounding tier 2, tier 3 and tier 4 towns. This will decongest the primary cities. The surroundings will develop. There will be cheap urban land for all. And the automobile will power the decongestion. The car will not cause urban congestion, as the greens believe today. The car will empower the people to live away from city centres and commute — if roads are built.
This is, then, the only “private-public partnership” we need: the cars are private; the roads are public. We pay taxes for roads. Quality toll-free roads must be built for India’s burgeoning car owners.
But the Central Planner has a miserable five-city vision of the “Golden Quadrilateral”. This must be replaced with a 1,000-city vision of hubs-and-spokes expressway systems combined with a coastal expressway network. In a free trading scenario — which Kamal Nath has wrecked — great new cities will come up on the coast, and India’s coastal highways are abysmal. Ask me: I have been living on the Konkan coast for quite a few years now.
A focus on universal automobile ownership and its potential in transforming urban India (if proper roads are built) is essential today. We must plan for prosperity. It cannot be denied that, on the streets of New Delhi, the people are getting richer every day. Their cars prove it. And since the Central Planner rides an Ambassador, his car also proves his mindset. Note that LBZ is laid out along a hub-and-spoke road network. But he sees it not.
What about “public transport”? Well, all the smaller cities and towns can have privately built tramway systems. DLF is building a private rail network in Gurgaon to connect its properties with the Delhi Metro. Let us not depend on the state for publicly-funded public transport. Recall that old Calcutta has its excellent tramway from the private sector. And note that high levels of automobile ownership can coexist with a good public transport system — as in Germany today. So we can choose when to drive. The car gives its owner self-directedness. Let us not throw away this essential freedom for the designs of a “transport planner”: the failure of the Delhi Bus Rapid Transport corridor only proves this point.
An ad of today goes, “A phone for every home.” I will add “a car for every home” too. That is the future. We must plan for it. We must think ahead. Our planners have not thought ahead. How can markets think ahead? It seems impossible.
Actually, the precise function of the entrepreneur is “to make provision for an uncertain future”. You get umbrellas on rainy days on demand because of entrepreneurs. That is why there are scooters on demand today. Under the planners, there were no scooters.
Further, the highest profits are reaped precisely by that entrepreneur who thinks ahead of all the rest. The later entrepreneurs only make “normal profit” — if at all. Ford Motor Co. is rich because Henry Ford used the assembly-line to produce the Model T in 1908. Ratan Tata is a late entrepreneur, making the Nano in 2008.
India is 100 years behind. But we are waking up to the possibility of catching up. I just hope our planners wake up soon.
Sauvik Chakraverti’s most recent publication is Four Wheels For All: The Case for the Rapid Automobilization of India, from Liberty Institute, New Delhi. He blogs at www.sauvik-antidote.blogspot.com. Comment at theirview@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Sep 14 2008. 09 54 PM IST