Don't blame the traffic, blame yourself

opinion January 05, 2013 00:00

By Veena Thoopkrajae

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On Boxing Day 2012, three days before the deadline on the government's first-car scheme, my colleague told me that I too could enjoy the benefits of the scheme, since the last time I bought a car was over a decade ago. Tempted I was, but time was running


That moment when I learned I was eligible under the government’s so-called “car for first-time buyers” policy brought me to understand each of the 1.3 million buyers who took up the offer. Wherever you look, you find “first-car buyers”. If they aren’t family members or relatives, they are your colleagues or their families. 
“I have bought eight cars already but they are all in my company’s name, so as I’m eligible to participate and have purchasing power, I bought my ‘first’ car – a pickup,” says The Nation’s automobile columnist and TV host Pattanadesh Asasappakij. He is one of many who decided to buy a new car just because they could.
It seems all eligible buyers are lured into the scheme simply because they get up to Bt100,000 in tax rebates one year after they purchase the car. Now you see the tempting part: those who pay tax know how difficult it is to get the same amount in tax return as the “first car” amount. That would involve a massive investment on LTF/RTF, a purchase of a life insurance policy and a number of donations to charities. 
But the government now offers you something you can’t resist: getting money back from buying something as “luxurious” as a car? It explains why the number of first-car buyers was nearly triple the earlier target of only 500,000. The skyrocketing number of participants will cost the government Bt90 billion in tax rebates.
The first-car scheme has also made the government the “most creative administration”, with 16 per cent of over 1,200 respondents calling the scheme a “creative policy”. Funnilyy enough, the same poll saw no mention of the “first-house” scheme. Perhaps the first-car scheme is sexier and strikes a chord with the public. If the government wanted to boost its popularity, it has achieved it. 
Nevertheless, critics slam the scheme, for it hardly contributes anything good to the general public, especially grassroots people who are in need of better public transportation. Many of them have demonstrated over what the government could do to improve people’s living standards with the amount of money spent on the car scheme.  
Among the options, they remind the government, are construction of an underground train line that would cost much less. For example, the Bang Sue-Tha Phra route would cost only Bt25.1 billion, while the Thailand Cultural Centre (Ratchadapisek)-Bang Kapi route would only cost Bt55 billion. They also give many examples of how that Bt90 billion would bring better education or help farmers in a sustainable way.
Those who oppose the scheme also question how the government will deal with the traffic problem when all these new cars hit the streets, while the roads remain the same in number and quality, and key mass transportation plans remain only on blueprints. Yet this argument is answered by proponents of the car scheme, who think that everyone has the right to buy a car. They also hint that the very rich should not blame the traffic problem on those less wealthy. 
Right, everyone yearns for a car, and we can’t deny that if everyone in Thailand can afford to buy one, he or she will. This first-car scheme seems more like a punishment for all. Those without a car who can’t afford to participate in the programme will have to stand (or sit if they are lucky) longer on crowded buses as the mass transit systems still fail to reach them. Those who own cars will suffer paying their instalments with rising fuel costs, and traffic will be much worse, especially during rush hours. 
When all 1.3 million vehicles from the programme hit the streets, it may be a case of all hell breaking loose. But we all must bear in mind that we can’t point the figure at anyone, as it is our collective action. There is a problem, and this time we are all part of it. The government couldn’t resist reaping the benefit of this populist policy, but it is us who couldn’t resist embracing it. We forget to remind ourselves: there is no such thing as a free lunch.