Planners from hell – The Supreme Court’s bad breadth

The Next City
March 21, 1999

 

OVER THE LAST TWO DECADES, DELHI RESIDENTS HAVE WATCHED THEIR CITY’S air pollution soar to record levels. India’s capital is now the fourth most polluted urban centre in the world, yet government departments — beyond issuing comforting bromides to silence critics — undertake few concrete measures. Fed up with this governmental indifference, some nonprofit organizations and environmental lawyers petitioned the Supreme Court of India to take action against the polluters.

In doing so, the petitioners relied on section 32 of the Indian Constitution, which entitles anyone to apply directly to the highest court in the land for enforcement of his fundamental rights. Based on this constitutional provision, the Supreme Court over the years has started numerous proceedings in response to petitions, letters, and even telegrams from complainants seeking legal redress, earning for itself a reputation as a very activist court. Recently, Chief Justice A. M. Ahmadi boasted that India’s Supreme Court is the world’s most powerful because of its broad authority and its enthusiastic activism.

The environmentalists had many reasons to complain. During December and January, when the cool weather traps airborne contaminants close to the ground, Delhi is transformed into a veritable gas chamber. A soot-filled pall hangs over the city, blotting out the sun and the sky for days on end. “Every time you come into your house at night,” says a long-time resident, “you wash a grey black film off your hands. When you wipe your face, your handkerchief turns a filthy shade of grey.” There is a foul odor everywhere, as if the very air has curdled and turned rancid. The sulphur level of the diesel used in Indian trucks and buses is 100 times that permitted in Europe, and two-stroke scooters and auto-rickshaws run on cheap, adulterated gasoline.

When asked how they feel, residents invariably complain about their itchy eyes, their sore throats, and their recurring bouts of bronchial congestion. The city’s rate of lung cancer and respiratory ailments is 12 times the national average, and according to one estimate, 10,000 residents annually die of pollution-related diseases. The levels of noxious pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, solid particulate matter, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, benzene, and lead are three to five times higher than acceptable standards set by the World Health Organization.

According to the evidence produced at the Supreme Court hearing, emission from vehicles is the single biggest source of the city’s dangerously high pollution levels, accounting for 67 per cent of the total, with old commercial vehicles being the worst culprits. Thermal power stations, factories, and homes are responsible for 13 per cent, 12 per cent, and 8 per cent respectively.

After hearing the evidence, the Supreme Court ordered all commercial motor vehicles 15 years and older — in all, 17,000 trucks, taxis, auto-rickshaws, and buses, constituting 12 per cent of the city’s commercial fleet — off Delhi’s roads by December 31, 1998.

Pollution control experts scoff at the suggestion that the Supreme Court’s intervention answers Delhi’s air pollution woes. They point out that this stopgap measure will not lower pollution levels without a broad range of changes from responsible government bodies. These include revamping the city’s lamentable public transportation system, introducing mass rail transit, building new highways, upgrading fuel quality, requiring vehicle manufacturers to use environmentally clean engine technology, halting gasoline adulteration, emphasizing efficient traffic management, and vigorously enforcing traffic laws.

Such a multifaceted campaign calls for an activist executive rather than an activist Supreme Court. In order to successfully execute this campaign, governments at all levels — national, state, and municipal — would need to get serious.

Sat Kumar

The art of mismanagement

TROIS-RIVIÈRES’S MUSÉE DES ARTS ET TRADITIONS POPULAIRES DU QUÉBEC opened in June 1996 amid much hoopla. Its creation was the dream of ethnologist Robert-Lionel Séguin, whose assortment of 18th- and 19th-century objects is the museum’s cornerstone, along with a large assembly of prehistoric artifacts. The city could now boast of a museum of national importance. To its imposing granite structure, the Vieille Prison (built in 1822, on what became the museum’s lot, and closed in 1986) was incorporated as an added attraction.

At the ribbon-cutting ceremonies, Claude Masson, assistant editor of the Montreal daily, La Presse, praised the museum: “It’s the cement that will reunite all the other great achievements of Trois-Rivières.” The city’s mayor, Guy LeBlanc, was equally upbeat: “They say that the people are critical, in the positive sense of the word, and when they see what belongs to them, I’m sure that they’ll become the first sellers of this jewel that will help us to develop tourism.” With a team of 50 employees, the museum received over 60,000 visitors in its first year.

But behind the platitudes lurked financial problems. The museum’s construction cost $15.6 million — paid with $7.6 million in provincial money, $6.5 million in federal funds, and a museum loan. Some people wondered whether a community of about 50,000 inhabitants justified such a costly investment. However, for the museum’s planners, thrift wasn’t a priority. Lise Bissonnette, former editor of Montreal’s Le Devoir, echoed the prevalent spirit of nonchalance: “Somebody asked me if I didn’t think there were too many institutions and not enough money to pay for them. I told them no. Questions of budget are only passing questions, these will work out in the end. The important thing is that the museum got off the ground.”

In March 1997, after the museum’s first fiscal year yielded a $540,000 deficit, the museum’s director stepped down, along with the president of its administrative council. More alarming, the number of visitors began to drop. During the museum’s second year, about 40,000 people visited, while only 24,500 are expected in the current year.

In September 1998, the new museum director, Sylvie Dufresne, declared that the museum was unable to pay the interest on its $1.5-million building loan. In addition, she had to set aside a $300,000 litigation fund because the Cogerex construction company had sued the museum for just under $2 million in allegedly unpaid bills. She also dismissed most of the museum’s remaining 33 employees, leaving only a dozen on the payroll. “We were used to living in luxury,” explained Dufresne, “now we must get used to living reasonably.”

Le Musée des arts et traditions populaires stands out in Trois Rivières’s run-down Ste-Cécile neighborhood. This quarter’s inhabitants don’t need a museum to see the past. They are surrounded by the abandoned hulks of dilapidated buildings — souvenirs of a time when the area had a grim semblance of hope. Ste-Cécile provided lodgings for factory workers during the industrial boom years of 1910 to 1930, but almost all these enterprises have since moved or shut down. It is now the poorest section of the city with the highest unemployment rate in Canada; over half of Ste-Cécile residents live at or under the national poverty level.

The occasional museum visitor might wonder, “So many millions for this?” No architect has publicly taken credit for the museum’s squat, ungainly structure, composed of great rectangular blocks, some of which are arranged in front of the building, resembling sarcophagi. The interior is equally void of warmth. The museum’s exhibits are of the static, don’t-touch variety, largely consisting of items that can be bought at a nearby flea market for less than the museum’s price of admission. Aside from one current exhibit — Parole, gestes et mémoire, which features popular tales, songs, and dances — the most interactive part of this museum is the visitor’s voice and footsteps echoing through its corridors’ stony emptiness.

Last fall, museum officials closed the Vieille Prison, which can temporarily be visited with a reservation. Though some fear that a similar fate might await the museum itself, its administrators — who are hoping for $150,000 from the provincial Ministry of Culture and Communications to reduce this year’s projected deficit — are gamely planning exhibits up to the year 2003. At the time of writing, Minister Louise Beaudoin was withholding this sum until she saw guarantees of support from the community. Officials have often accused Trois-Rivières’s citizens of not doing their part. As Mayor LeBlanc said last fall: “The people must take hold of the museum. It’s always been seen as somewhat of an orphan.”

The museum’s financial woes won’t disappear tomorrow. The cost of heating its 110,000 square feet of dead air continues to contribute to its deficits. Trois-Rivières has built a costly mausoleum to display its culture; this edifice is the city’s quaint, provincial version of Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. Le Musée des arts et traditions populaires represents two legacies that continue to trouble Trois-Rivières: the art of mismanagement and the popular tradition of bankruptcy.

Robert Rebselj

Utah’s sober liquor laws

REMNANTS OF PROHIBITION LINGER ON IN UTAH, WHERE STIFF LAWS REQUIRE a private club membership of anyone wanting to drink liquor outside his home or outside specially designated lounges such as the one at the Salt Lake Airport. Clubs must charge at least $12 for a full-year membership, but their fees are often higher: Salt Lake City’s Lumpy’s social hall charges $20 for the privilege of drinking there for a year. If you are, perchance, interested in a night of barhopping, you must join every club you visit, although you can save some money by buying two-week temporary memberships for about $5. People with memberships can sponsor friends free of charge, but they must accompany their guests at all times. Once inside, state law prohibits bartenders from serving patrons a double, but enthusiastic imbibers can circumvent this regulation by ordering what Utah residents call a sidecar — a shot that they can pour into a drink themselves.

Utah beer drinkers have only a slightly easier time of it. Although taverns don’t require memberships, they can only serve beer with a maximum alcohol content of 3.2 per cent by weight, compared with a 5 per cent Canadian average. Restaurants are allowed to serve any alcoholic drink, but servers must wait for the patron to broach the subject before they can bring a drinks list. As for private consumption, Utah residents can drink whatever they like, but they’ll only find 3.2 per cent beer in their grocery and convenience stores. Only state-owned liquor stores can sell full-strength beer, liquor, and wine.

The Utah Hospitality Association, which lobbies for liquor law reform, faces tough opposition in the state legislature. About 90 per cent of Utah legislators belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which bans alcohol drinkers from its temples. A church spokesman recently defended the state’s liquor laws: “Utah’s record in limiting the disastrous social and health effects of alcohol is second to none. The state needs to preserve that remarkable record while allowing people reasonable access to alcohol.”

Shinan Govani

Regulations ruffle ostrich ranchers’ feathers

STEVE WARRINGTON WANTS U.S. LAWMAKERS TO GET THEIR HEADS OUT of the sand. As head of Ostriches On Line, the world’s largest international ostrich company, Warrington is spearheading a petition to declassify the birds as exotic — a designation that requires inspection fees that inflate the cost of ostrich meat by as much as $2 per pound. With more than 5,000 American ranchers now raising up to 500,000 ostriches, he argues, the birds are hardly “exotic” anymore.

“Beef, chicken, turkey, pork, and other agriculture industries do not have to pay these fees,” says Warrington, “so we are not competing on a level playing field.” The regulations also affect the prices of byproducts such as ostrich leather (prized for its distinctive quill pattern and suppleness), feathers (used in costumes and in the automobile and electronics industries), and oil (touted as a superb skin care product). According to Ostriches On Line, the fees hamper America’s competitiveness in the growing worldwide ostrich market since no other country has comparable legislation.

The punitive regulations also assail consumers looking for nutritious, environmentally friendly meat. Despite the flavor and texture of beef, ostrich boasts only 2.8 fat grams per 100 grams of cooked meat and less cholesterol and calories than either chicken or turkey. In addition, ostrich farming requires only two-thirds of an acre for a trio of ostriches, and the birds have the best feed-to-weight ratio gain of any land animal.

Warrington is on target to collect 250,000 petition names to present to the 106th Congress. Mississippi Representative Bennie Thompson is expected to introduce an amendment to the Poultry Products Inspection Act to include birds of the Ratitae order (ostriches, emus, and rheas), thereby erasing its exotic classification, sometime this year.

“Once amended, consumers should begin to see a steady decline in the retail price over a two- to three-month period,” pledges Warrington.

S. G.

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