Mumbai: Mr Nitin Gadkari, union road transport minister, is one of the more efficient ministers. He often comes up with innovative solutions like converting waste water and garbage to profitable use.
Unfortunately, there is little innovation in urban transport with which his department is closely concerned. In fact, instead of innovation, regressive , costly solutions are being thrust on civic bodies and state governments by the central government.
The Centre is obsessed with Metro rail and has increased allocation for this sector in the latest budget . But there is little relief for suburban railway and urban bus transport which are the backbone of the system in cities like Mumbai. A whopping Rs. 10,000 crore has been allocated for a totally ill-conceived, needless, highly discriminatory bullet rail project between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. This amount would more than suffice to nurse back the BEST bus undertaking’s bus service which government and municipal policies have grievously crippled.
Mrs Ashwini Bhide, the chief of the Metro rail project, is doing a brave job of meeting numerous challenges. Some of these arise out of disruption caused by the project all over the metropolis. Referring to opposition from some people including tree lovers, she says a rational approach is needed, not emotional..
Exactly. Actually, if a rational approach was really adopted, the government would much rather promote bus transport which is far cheaper than Metro which is going to cost almost Rs. 1000 crore per km. a very high figure indeed.
Besides, the authorities are looking at the hitech metro project as a game changer, as not only a mobility project but as something that will change the face of the metropolis, make it look more modern.
But the question is why road transport for common people is being treated so shabbiliy, why is it in such a primitive state. I was standing at a bus stop at Vashi gaon, a focal point between New Bombay or Navi Mumbai and the island city. It was so full of dust blown by vehicles on the edge of the highway that it was impossible to remain there for even a few minutes. Such humiliation is constantly inflicted on common people. It is not enough to reduce cars, bring in more buses, the whole environment for promoting public transport has to improve substantially.
All this talk of high tech projects is so unconvincing, ridiculous. Instead of the bombast of hi tech, they should first provide basic amenities. There is a limit to hoodwinking common people.
Rail officials don’t seem to have the most basic understanding of ordinary technology. Look at the extremely uncomfortable seats in first class on western suburban rail. These can be easily repaired with a little expense. But the authorities are simply unconcerned.
It is often argued that motorists will turn to public transport if it is improved. But studies in Delhi have shown that the addiction to the car is so intense, only about 10 per cent may shift to public transport. The main solution is to severely restrict car use, levy congestion charge, parking charges and so on.
Mr Gadkari has been citing London Transport as a model for our urban areas. But while it looks very good, it is very discriminatory, the poor can no longer afford journeys in England under the regime of privatization and there are vociferous demands for renationalization of British rail and bus transport. Also, there is huge subsidy for railways in Britain at the cost of bus transport. There is strong criticism of high dividends for directors of private companies and bloated executive pay, as reported by the Guardian.
As for the Delhi Metro, a study by the Centre for science and environment shows it is the second most unaffordable Metro service among nine major cities in the world.
Mr Gadkari makes it look as if electric cars will solve all problems . But that will only deal with problems of fuel and pollution. But that does nothing to solve the crucial problem of congestion and robbery of public space by motorists most of whom hate to pay for parking.So the cars will remain a heavy , intolerable burden on urban areas. As is obvious, the government has no political will whatsoever to take on the automobile lobby.
Now about some experience of transport in Jaipur. It was a pleasure attending the Jaipur literary festival last month. The ambience on the lawns of Diggi palace was wonderful and there were stimulating lectures and discussions involving writers and artistes from across the globe. The sponsorship by Zee Entertainment remains controversial because it is seen to be communal and anti-liberal.
The organisers are gloating over the rising number of people attending the festival running into hundreds of thousands. But there was something very undemocratic about the local transport needs of such a large number of people.
Unbelievable as it would seem, public buses were actually barred from the wide Shivaji Marg outside the venue. I checked with several people and found that this was a conscious decision taken by the traffic police because in their unwisdom they think, motor cars must get priority over buses.
I brought this to the attention of Sanjoy Roy, with his long white hair all around him. He was no even aware of this but promised to take action. But by then the festival was coming to an end.
When lakhs of people attend an event, normally special buses are arranged for their travel. Here the very opposite was done, existing buses were barred. So people unaware of this stood for long at the nearby Maharani college bus stop and then in frustration walked further on to find some means of transport.
In contrast to the discrimination against buses, the car lobby was served well with plenty of parking on an adjoining ground. The anti-bus move may also have been dictated by the idea of promoting the interests of Ola and Uber taxies.
It seems this happens all the time in Jaipur. I talked with some people local residents and they say whenever there is a big event, buses are diverted to make way for cars. Sadly, people accept this deeply insensitive if not cruel, anti people policy.
I got further confirmation of the anti-people bias of the government when I walked for a couple of km on Jan Path stretching from Vidhan Sabha, the anti-democratically imposing state assembly building, to Sachivalaya, the state administration headquarters, the high court and several government office buildings. It is quite wide and the authorities had absolutely no business, justification for banning buses.
It is an irony that this is called a people’s road, Jan Path, and buses are not allowed. This is not only anti-demcoratic, , it obviously causes a lot of inconvenience to the staff, forces them to use personal vehicles, it is bad economics as this causes so much wasteful of fuel and causes congestion.
By chance, I met a government official from the information department while he was getting into his car, I confronted him about this unjust policy, he realized he had no answer and just went away.
Jaipur is the earliest planned city in India in modern times but now I shows poor planning. Visitors are struck by the wide roads. But still traffic is becoming a problem because there is no check on motor vehicles clogging the roads.
There was not the slightest justification for the Metro railway built in the city. It is attracting few riders, no one had demanded it, local people are highly critical of it. But the Metro lobby seems quite powerful. A second Metro line is now causing intolerable congestion in the old parts of the city.
This city would have had no problem for several decades without a Metro if only it had checked the number of cars. There would be no scope for congestion with its wide roads.
While an expensive, high tech Metro system has been imposed, ordinary people have no option but to travel in primitive, ramshackle , private mini buses with benches on sideways. Not comfortable, but somehow, this is the main mode of transport for common people, the so called modern low floor buses are very few.
So, the authorities should remember that instead of thrusting, expensive and inefficient projects it is better to adopt simple, workable solutions.
Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of a book questioning the motor car dominated form of urban governance