Friday, February 23, 2007

Power to the people

From the Bagehot column of the current Economist, I read that British Prime Minister Tony Blair has responded to an online e-petition by citizens protesting against the implementation of a national vehicle-tracking system aimed at taxing motorists each time they drove their car. The article says..

The petition demands that the government abandon proposals to establish a national vehicle-tracking system that would be used to tax motorists every time they drove their cars. Through exaggeration and distortion the petition has rather brilliantly united the motoring, anti-tax and civil-liberties lobbies. [Full article here, paid registration required]

I noted a few things here.

1. The British Government encourages petitions, that too on its own website. This is the e-petition page, and this is the specific e-petition being referred to in the Economist article.

The idea of tracking every vehicle at all times is sinister and wrong. Road pricing is already here with the high level of taxation on fuel. The more you travel - the more tax you pay. It will be an unfair tax on those who live apart from families and poorer people who will not be able to afford the high monthly costs. Please Mr Blair - forget about road pricing and concentrate on improving our roads to reduce congestion.[>>]

2. The Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, has responded
to the petition. Read his reply here. An extract below
One thing I suspect we can all agree is that congestion is bad. It's bad for business because it disrupts the delivery of goods and services. It affects people's quality of life. And it is bad for the environment. That is why tackling congestion is a key priority for any Government.

Congestion is predicted to increase by 25% by 2015. This is being driven by economic prosperity. There are 6 million more vehicles on the road now than in 1997, and predictions are that this trend will continue. Part of the solution is to improve public transport, and to make the most of the existing road network. We have more than doubled investment since 1997, spending £2.5 billion this year on buses and over £4 billion on trains- helping to explain why more people are using them than for decades. And we're committed to sustaining this investment, with over £140 billion of investment planned between now and 2015. We're also putting a great deal of effort into improving traffic flows - for example, over 1000 Highways Agency Traffic Officers now help to keep motorway traffic moving. [>>]

3. The concept of road pricing itself, which has been so vehemently opposed by the public in the e-petition. From the British Department for Transport's FAQs on road pricing -

Road pricing involves changing the way we pay for road use, to better reflect usage. It is not about stopping people travelling - rather addressing the concentration of vehicles on particular roads at specific times of day.

Research suggests that well designed road pricing schemes, alongside improved public transport, can lead to significant reductions in congestion. Through only a very small shift in travel patterns, significant reductions in congestion can be achieved. Shifts in travel patterns can be achieved in a number of ways, for example travelling at a different time of day and using public transport - road pricing is not about stopping people from travelling.[>>]

I couldn't help thinking how far Mumbai is from London (no pun intended, partially). Perhaps, the comparison isn't fair. But there a few things to ponder about, such as these

How informative and progressive are Government and Government agency websites?

Surprisingly informative. I found it hard to believe but if you spend time on the sites of the Maharashtra State Government, the BMC, MMRDA and other agencies, you'd be surprised with the data they've uploaded. Almost all my posts on this blog are based on data taken from these websites.

In an earlier post, I had given an example of how the Maharashtra Election Commission had uploaded the electoral rolls as PDFs on their website (check it out here). This was an eye-opener to me.

So, the point I'm making is that we might not be as progressive as to invite e-petitions, and our websites might not be as well designed as 10, Downing Street. But I think we've come some way in providing information to the public. We might have a long way to go, but I think we're at least in the right direction.

Can the Maharashtra State Government, or for that matter, the BMC, invite citizen participation on critical matters like congestion ?

But first, is citizen participation even necessary ? No, don't get me wrong. Think about it. Will ordinary people take time out to get involved in issues concerning the city ? Besides, how well-informed are they ? I mean, would you rather that NGOs, ordinary citizens, netizens and their ilk get actively involved in Mumbai's problems ? Aren't they already ? And what have they achieved ?

To be fair, agencies like AGNI and ADR have done some commendable work in the recent BMC elections. To be fair, advanced locality management (ALM) have done a lot to change things in some areas in Mumbai. And to be fair, our State Government itself has advocated the concept of Citizens Action Group.

So, there is no doubt in my mind that we, as citizens, can make a difference, but the efforts can be more productive if they were ran hand-in-hand with Government agencies. Not counter.

Which then brings me to Government agencies themselves...

How much can be achieved if governance at these agencies is improved ? A lot. Think about it. If the Road Transport Office (RTO) gets strict on vehicles offending no-parking zones, wouldn't that improve traffic flow during peak hours ? How many times have you noticed cars casually parked under "no parking" signs (and I see as many taxis as I see office-goers talking on their mobile phones, both with their vehicles parked under the signs)

The point I'm making is simply this - If the Government needs to make itself more open and more consultative to us, we need to be more focused on changing things. In this direction, I was glad to note that the Vote Mumbai campaign notched up its first success with Adolf D'Souza winning the recent BMC Elections from his Juhu Ward.

And finally..
Is a congestion tax effective ?
Chief Minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh had specifically ruled out a congestion tax in Mumbai (I can't locate the link although I remember he said so in an interview to Hindustan Times).

Is that good or bad ? What was the experience in London ? The same Economist article notes

This week Transport for London, the mayor's own transport body, was forced to admit that congestion is only 8% lower than it was before the charge was introduced. TfL thinks the extension is likely to make things even worse because of residents' discounts within the expanded zone.

So much for that idea.