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The Parking, Recycling, Scrap revolution for India is overdue


Photo by Documerica on Unsplash

They built a new 4-lane road near my house - a spanking new concretized stretch now exists in place of a dusty swamp which the locals negotiated on foot until recently. But its state is more like the Hindi idiom - गाँव बसा नहीं, लुटेरे आ गए (meaning: Robbery committed even before the Village could set up).

Buses, trucks, and tempos park on one side, making it a single lane road. Most of these vehicles are parked all day - not just during the day or during the night. Why do these vehicles park on new roads all the time? For some, like taxis waiting time is much higher than driving time - certain cabbies can make enough in one trip across the city to earn a day's living (and they are often lazy not to make more!). Few other cars belong to residents who use public transport for daily commute, but need a car for occasional usage, and while they can afford to buy a car, they don't have parking space in their building.

Further, India is far behind other big countries in getting rid of old things like cars and trucks. New laws now require vehicles older than 15 years to be removed from roads (in metros and cities). But then there aren't enough facilities to do this, so old cars also keep piling on the curb side, often remaining neglected for months and years.

And as I was seeing the problem first hand in my vicinity, I came across this podcast about transport problems in Mumbai. It's an interview with Dhawal Ashar, Head - Sustainable Cities & Transport at World Resources Institute - India, where they talk about Mumbai's commute, public transport, and roads. 

Sachin Kalbag, the interviewer talks to Dhawal Ashar about why more roads are being built instead of augmenting public transport. But for almost every question, Mr Ashar comes back to 'parking' being a big issue. He feels that congestion tax won't solve Mumbai's problems because even though many cars are being bought, private vehicle ownership is still low compared to other countries and so, Mumbai needs both roads and public transport. He says that to fix congestion, we need to focus on parking - working in the Demand Side with parking, by not just creating large dispersed parking lots but many smaller parking spaces.

The fact is, that, there is no metered parking in Mumbai or other cities. As far as the law goes, parking along the street is often prohibited or complicated by odd/even side parking rules. In some places, there's an odd gentleman appointed by the local body who collects parking charges and allows you to park. Only few such 'gentlemen' are genuine [1] [2] [3] [4] (more on that in the next paragraph). But then there are more cars and not enough parking spaces; big underground parking projects don't solve the problem because people won't park far from their homes. Instead, they park on the curb side illegally near their homes. And without authorized curbside parking, police or traffic marshals often fine owners for illegal parking. 

This then leads to a unique system where people pay touts to watch over parked cars and prevent any fines or tow truck from taking action. Needles to say, these touts use bribes to prevent action. This well-oiled system is hard to stop, because the money from these bribes goes all the way up and probably finds its way into election campaign funding. So, fixing this problem needs big changes in how things work. A national and state level policy initiative is needed to initiate a large scale urban parking.  Whether its parking meters or simply initiating metered curbside parking charges - unless a national standard is created and local bodies incentivized to put in place a fair and automated parking system, this problem will keep running a parallel economy.

However, just focusing on creating more parking space or metering curbside parking is not sufficient. The next problem we need to solve are old vehicles not in active service. Here's data on the number of cars - total and per capita, juxtaposed with number of Junk yard facilities globally.  

Data gathered from multiple sources. 
Screenshot shows only top 5 car ownership countries only. Link to the entire data sheet here.

As is evident, India doesn't have enough junkyard facilities (and Russia, China, Japan too!). With the new rule making vehicles defunct after 15 years, only a few of those vehicles will transition to rural areas (mostly private vehicles which still maintain running quality after 15 years). So what happens to older vehicles? They're more likely to line up, on the curbside, just like the taxis and trucks photographed above.

So we need efficient mechanisms to convert offroaded vehicles into scrap. Thankfully, India already recycles a lot, kabaadi as an industry is quite deep in Indian hinterland. However, the real challenge is making a system to take cars off roads, move them to junkyards, turn them into scrap, and then use that scrap again.

To fix this, we need large scale junkyards for all the cars that need to be scrapped in big cities and smaller ones too. But junkyards for the scale needed by vehicles retiring from Indian cities, it will take a lot of space; and India - the world's most populous country - is already starved for space. More so junkyards can't occupy spaces which can be used productively otherwise. For example, junkyards can't occupy prime manufacturing hubs or fertile land tracts. So junkyards need to be in unfertile tracts which are usually found further away from cities. And then, the scrap from the city needs to be moved to these junkyards in unfertile areas. Then we need a new way to get the scrap from the junkyard back into the regular system.

Thankfully, the government of India recognized this need in 2021-22 and put in place a policy. However, more urgency is required because India is growing rapidly. More people are becoming financially capable of buying cars and also scrapping old ones. And the electric car revolution is upon us, and it brings new challenges like recycling batteries. Recycling EVs is going to be more complicated because unlike ICE engines, its not just metal and plastic but chemical recycling, scrapping which is not only more complicated, but also more prone to creating newer forms of pollution if not recycled properly. 

Finally, a national scrapping policy will not solve the problem because the problem is more local than national. A scheme on the lines of JNNURM and AMRUT is required, which incentivizes state governments and local bodies such as municipal and gram panchayat level agencies to adopt policies which encourage scrapping, setting up of junk yards and tightening of parking norms (especially without encouraging touts and agents).

India is sitting on a huge opportunity and risk when it comes to Urban Transportation - we have opportunities to create new cities and redefine lifestyle in cities by learning from mistakes of the West. But right now it looks like we are not even learning from the successes of the West. Need for basic infrastructure - public transport, parking and vehicle scrapping - is way past overdue. The time to act is NOW!


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