Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | Does new India have appetite for tough change?

A fortnight ago, the surface transport ministry headed by Nitin Gadkari notified a steep revision in fines on road violations under the new law passed by Parliament in its last session. On 2 October, the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, the Union government will impose a ban on single-use plastic. Both are salutary and long overdue moves consistent with the vision of new India laid out by Prime Minister Narendra Modi but accompanied by substantive underlying political costs. The big question is whether the country and its politicians have the appetite to stomach such drastic change.

Take for example the new norms for traffic violations. It took several years to fructify, but less than 48 hours for the norms to be diluted by politicians arguing that the new levies were exorbitant, which is bizarre logic because you pay a fine only if you commit an infraction. Ironically Gujarat, which is ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and is the home state of Modi, led the charge and later two more saffron-ruled states, Uttarakhand and Karnataka, followed suit. This is not just about BJP vs BJP, no matter how tempting the narrative.

The backtracking is inexplicable given that the new norms are designed to contain the rising incidence of road fatalities. The surface transport ministry’s data reveals that on an average there is a road accident every minute. More puzzling is the fact that so far the BJP under Modi has not shied away from tough unpopular decisions, like say demonetization. Further, anecdotally in Delhi, which incidentally did not dilute the levies, we see most people now halting behind the stop line at a red light and even (surprise, surprise) adhering to speed limits. Somewhere this is a tacit recognition that a new rules-based regime is slowly taking shape, wherein the costs of wilfully committing such infractions far outweigh the cost of being compliant. The question then is why take a step back.

In the case of plastic, the political costs of implementation are of a different nature. In this case it strikes at a vital part of the informal ecosystem, which supplies single-use plastic. According to Jairam Ramesh, the Congress member of Parliament, it could trigger about 300,000 job losses in an electorally vital segment. Politicians who are not willing to risk a backlash from an automobile driving middle class is less likely to take on this segment of the voting populace. On this, however, the jury is still out because the ban is yet to be rolled out.

In the absence of any cogent rejoinder one can only speculate as to why politicians are reluctant to hit the gas pedal on such tough measures of change. One obvious reason could be the legacy of a compromised bureaucracy, which will be vested with the task of implementing the new norms. The demonetization experience showed us that the weak link in the entire effort—to target black money—was the banker. Anecdotally and otherwise we know that a section of bankers colluded to launder black money (it is a wonder that no one has been booked as yet).

If indeed the authorities view policemen as the weak link, then surely our authorities know that technology can be deployed in the case of traffic violations, which will ensure faceless implementation. Cameras mounted at red lights, or speed guns at key points on the road, can lock down an infraction without any human intervention. The fines can be sent directly to the vehicle owner’s email/phone.

In the final analysis, it is apparent that this tendency of going one step forward and two steps back undermines the legitimacy of policy change, just when people are beginning to accept the rigour of a nascent rules-based regime. More worrying is that without an appetite for change, India will find it tough to realise its potential. That would be a shame.

Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

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