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Now is the time

For enthusiasts of historic vehicles, the recent letter from the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has spelled good tidings. Of course, the letter raises more questions than answers them, but at least the thinking in the government seems to be heading in the right direction. The fact that there are more than a billion automobiles on Planet Earth, contributing to almost 75 percent of carbon monoxide emissions, is a piece of data, which cannot be denied. In congested cities, automobiles could contribute to over half the emission in certain cases, and this is reflected in the fact that Indian cities are some of the most polluted in the world.

Most of the major cities of the world are instituting the concept of Low Emission Zones (LEZs) for their cities to bring down pollution and improve the deteriorating health situation of its citizens. This is brought about by restricting the use of vehicles, more specifically, the older ones, as they pollute more. For instance, Paris does not allow vehicles older than 20 years to ply in the city during peak hours – from 8am to 8pm during the five working days of the week.

Initially the plan was to ban the use of all vehicles above the age of 20 entirely, through the week. The Fédération Française des Véhicules d’Epoque (FFVE), which is the federation that unites all the clubs (979 of them), museums (46) and professionals (354) in France, as well as the enthusiasts (some 250,000 of them, owning over 800,000 vehicles), with the help of FIVA, approached the mayor of Paris. The mayor was also made aware of the fact that UNESCO had recognized FIVA as a non-governmental partner. After detailed discussions and representations, she was convinced that the ban should be, at most restricted to 12 hours (8am-8pm) per day, for the five working days of the week, when traffic is at its maximum.

The mayor of Paris, as well as most government authorities in Europe recognise that automobiles above the age of 30 years cannot be one, which is in use extensively, and thus realise that the extent to which historic vehicles pollute is indeed minuscule. At the same time, there are restrictions to vehicular age of commercial use automobiles: for instance, taxis in Paris cannot be more than seven years old. (Though the figure for Paris have never been computed, it may be worth noting that the population of the commercial use vehicles in Beijing used to be three percent, but contributed to 38 percent of vehicular pollution in that city. By electrifying this fleet, Beijing has been able to address its pollution problems markedly.)

FIVA and the historic vehicle movement in Europe realise that with LEZs cropping up everywhere, what would happen to vehicles between 20 and 30 years of age (all the cars between 1990 and 2000, for instance)? Many will migrate to the countryside. Otherwise, people will keep them in storage and use occasionally during weekends or out of the city. The German federation ADAC has managed to get a different classification and recognition for the 20-30 years-old vehicles as Youngtimers.

The 15-50 years gap in the Indian system – as proposed by the ministry – will be terrible for all historic vehicles in the 30-50 years lot, and a significant chunk of India’s historic vehicles are amongst them. Of course, when the phrase historic vehicles is used, it implies all vehicles which are more than 30 years of age, and by that definition would include all the early Maruti 800s, the Hindustan Contessas, the Standard 2000s, as well as Kinetic Hondas and Yamaha RX100s. In Europe, much greater importance has been for the vehicles manufactured within the country – these are the vehicles, which are truly historic for the country. Unfortunately, many of the elitist enthusiasts in India tend to dismiss our own history.

Though figures are not available it has been estimated that around 20 million vehicles are more than 15 years old, in India. Of these, it may not be amiss to assume that, at best, only five percent are more than 30 years of age, which would still be as many as a million cars and two-wheelers (the latter perhaps representing more than three quarters of the total). Yet the numbers for the total fleet, which is more than 50 years of age, probably falls to just 25,000, at most. Which would mean that as many as 975,000 vehicles are in peril.

It may be worth noting that in the United Kingdom, the population of historic vehicles, which are more than 30 years old, is 1.2 million, and is valued at £17.8 Billion (Rs 167,000 Crores)! Even if the worth of the historic vehicles in India is not a fraction of that, just imagine the opportunity lost cost of the 975,000 vehicles, which may get destroyed over the next few years?

Most European countries, as well as the US (which has an estimated 25 million historic vehicles in the country) and several other nations recognise the importance and value of the world’s industrial history, and the fact that to keep these vehicles “alive” they need to be driven, even if occasionally. It is important for us as a nation to learn from them, and not from China, which has systematically destroyed its history at every level (something that they recognise today, even if it is too late for certain aspects).

The most important learning from Europe and the US is that to discuss, present and convince government and authorities, it is important to have one voice, one set of criteria and standards, one cohesive story to tell and explain, instead of a set of diverse, often contradictory, objectives and points of view. It is also important that the representation made to the government reflect the desires of every enthusiast, and not just that of a handful of the bigger collectors, as this hobby mustn’t be seen to be the exclusive preserve of the wealthiest. FIVA’s past president Patrick Rollet had just three historic vehicles. Tiddo Bresters, the new president has one better – he has four of them, but all are VW Beetles.

As of the time of writing this, we are still the world’s biggest democracy. A democratic representation of the wishes of the enthusiasts, with a democratic process followed in heeding and deciding on the rules and regulations of the use of historic vehicles may go a long way in bringing about an intelligent and sensible solution to preserving our motoring heritage. At the same time, address the serious issues of emission and the wellbeing of all Indian citizens.

- Gautam Sen

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