Home / Opinion / Views /  Time to solve a solvable encroachment problem
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Encroachment has evidently become a big preoccupation of the municipal authorities in Delhi, where bulldozers have been in action this week against illegal structures on public land. Oddly, however, far less attention is paid to ‘squatters’ of another sort: big vehicles parked on spots their owners neither own nor rent by way of a parking fee. Sure, these are authorized objects: their road tax is paid up, their mobility limits their obstructive potential, and Indian law allows parking in public zones that are not barred for the purpose. Yet, the vehicular saturation of our urban spaces offers a parallel with the slum proliferation being marked out for demolition. Both occupy unpaid-for land. And clog-ups full of four-wheelers can be more disruptive—think of blocked hospital access—than rickety sheds and shacks put up by the landless poor. As the country’s vehicle count zooms, the problem will worsen. And as land is a scarce resource, it’s high time India began pricing it properly, especially for those who can afford to pay.

Consider the auto boom that rode on the back of our economy. As per government records, we had 21.4 million registered vehicles overall in 1991. A report of the transport ministry puts that count at 296 million by the end of 2018-19. While three-fourths were two-wheelers, the total included 38.4 million cars and jeeps. The country’s auto market slumped after that. Sales of passenger vehicles slipped for two successive years before their 2021-22 revival. Scooter and motorcycle sales, the market’s bulk, are still on a down slide. Yet, the sector’s base is so large that the wheels rolled out just in the past three years exceed the grand total we had back in 2000-01, going by data from the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers. All added up, we now have over 350 million vehicles. Around 47 million of these are what we loosely call ‘cars’. At any given moment, most of them are stationary, a large number occupying space unpaid for. Under the New Motor Vehicle Act of 2019, a vehicle cannot be left at a spot that either impedes or endangers others; or is off limits, a list that goes beyond explicitly barred zones to include footpaths, bus stops, main roads, high-speed routes, entrances of premises and spots near traffic signals, crossings, pedestrian stripes, hilltops, bridges and street bends. Fines for illegal parking vary across cities. Wrecked or abandoned cars are liable to be towed away by cops, even those left unattended for over 10 hours in a public place. These rules are not only routinely flouted, they are often a surprise to motorists—a sign of how weakly they are enforced. Errant parkers tend to get away scot-free partly because they do not glare out amid the chaos of a privilege enjoyed by India’s well-wheeled: the liberty to yank the hand-brake on any open spot and casually walk away.

As Google Maps has shown, technology can use sky-scans to spot order in chaotic systems by sorting out big data for links and patterns, even causes and effects. And it’s about time Digital India deployed modern tools to handle the fallout of a motor glut. With its 3.4 million cars and jeeps, Delhi is in need of a trial run for a road-pricing policy aimed at coffer filling as much as market discipline. Space orbiters and smartphones could be linked online to usage meters that bill four-wheelers and other tarmac hogs for every road squat and route taken, varying tariffs by demand and supply in real time. Done well, it could ease the city’s arterial mobility and see off mobile squatters.

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