J.B.D’souza, IAS officer of old days, in contrast to Officers having fun at Davos

Traffic mumbai

Mumbai:With the collapse of transport infrastructure for common people in Mumbai making big headlines daily, any self -respecting administration would have felt embarrassed and concentrated on basic amenities and suspended or postponed fancy schemes like the bullet train or the coastal road for cars.

More so when we are now amidst elections.

But far from it. The authorities show little evidence of waking up.

The administration ignored basic poblems for decades and now more and more bridges at railway stations are being closed to commuters for repairs. This has plunged millions into a crisis.

Can one imagine the nightmarish situation ? Even existing bridges in use were totally inadequate as the stampede at Elphinstone road station shows. Then the roads are choked with cars and Metro railway construction work . This is a crisis for the whole city. Had the authorities strengthened the BEST network, not strangulated it, the crisis would have been far less severe.

The railway network depends heavily on bridges for access. BEST has the advantage that it is so easily accessible. There are multiple other reasons why the BEST needs to be given priority. Entry to Metro stations too is not easy as there is a queue for security and ticket buying. The BEST is so easily accessible in comparison, but then that is if you get a bus in the first place.

Mr J.B. Dsouza, former municipal commissioner of Mumbai was travelling by a BEST bus at Cumballa hill when he was a young officer. When it broke down on the way, he too got down with other passengers and helped to push it and restart it..The point is in those days in the early 70s an IAS officer thought nothing about travelling by a bus and saw no problem in pushing it . .

On the other hand look what is happening now. Five Maharashtra cadre IAS senior bureaucrats ran up a bill of Rs. 60 lakh, for using motor car transport during their official five day visit for the Davos economic summit earlier this year. Yes, 60 lakh rupees, no exaggeration.

The Davos example may be an extreme case of alleged corruption but it gives us an idea about the changing attitudes of the bureaucracy towards urban transport.

Another irony is that the bureaucrats committed the alleged fraud in a country with one of the best public transport systems in the world. Just imagine the bureaucrats travelling there by public transport and charging only for that . It would create such a good public impact. Even United Nations bureaucrats there travel by bus so no big deal there. So in this context of the changing nature of Indian bureaucracy and politics it is not surprising that the BEST has been neglected for so long . Of course, other factors including changes in public perception of transport, role of politicians are responsible.

One can understand bureaucrats now do not take public transport. But they just need to look around and they can see why the BEST is running into loss and ridership is falling. There are so many obstacles in the way of the bus system.

It is all there visible , very close to Mantralaya and the houses of bureaucrats, serving and retired. There is a bus stop next to Y.B. Chavan Centre near Mantralaya. I have been noticing this for years, big parked cars obstruct the bus stop. The bus stop carries the name of the Chavan Centre controlled by Mr Sharad Pawar. The political class too is totally unconcerned.

Mr Dsouza passed away a few years ago but his wife Neela recalls the rides she enjoyed in those days on BEST buses with her children. She is 84 but is an active walker, I often see and meet her in Bandra during my walks..

Over the years, popular perceptions and attitudes have changed. I have heard Charles Correa say that upper class women will go to fashion street near Flora Fountain and buy from street hawkers..But they will never take a BEST bus. That is a No, No for their image.

Actually, ministers and bureaucrats can set a fine example by trvelling by a BEST bus, it can be such a fun ride between Malabar hill and Mantralaya past Marine Drive. But politicians themselves are wrecking public transport from inside. Two seats are still reserved for state legislators in State transport buses but they no longer travel by buses. Many politicians actually operate private buses causing losses of ST buses. The ST service is as much neglected as the BEST.

Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi travelled in a bus for a meeting of the Congress committee from Delhi to Surajkund on the outskirts. That was way back in 2012 and a completely isolated example.. Prime Minister Modi posed himself riding a bicycle in Netherlands and some chief minister occasionally ride a bicycle for photo op. But never by the humble bus. The main reason they seem to think is that the bus is not sexy and has little political appeal to catch votes. A politician who starts a Metro rail network in a city finds it has a much better demonstration effect, it shows that he has done something. Same for flyovers.Psychologists have found that the minds are so heavily doctored by continuous propaganda of the motor car lobby and high technology that people do not make rational choices. So even though many cannot afford a car, they buy one and then it just lies idle. There are numerous example. I see this daily during a walk to Joggers Park in Bandra. A couple living less than 100 metres away come by car, park it there and then go back. There is again a hierarchy of status in car brands. That is why Nano proved such a disaster, it was thought to be too middle class. This again fortifies the point that the car is for many a status symbol than a vehicle for mobility. Or people take an auto rickshaw or a share rickshaw partly out of prejudice against buses and partly because auto rickshaws provide a quick, easy access.

Mr Ratan Tata used to say that his heart went out to a family of four riding a scooter and he thought the middle class deserved a small car and went ahead with the Nano project. A flawed solution and one motivated by profit, but he at least thought about the problem. Our politicians and planners are aggravating problems rather than solving them.

Compared to other modes of transport bus transport is much more fun if one gets a seat. One can see the surroundings best from a bus, better even from an ac car because the bus is at a higher level . I recently travelled by monorail from the start at Saat Rasta to Vadala and Chembur. You are on a much higher level than in a bus but it is not as much fun because you don’t get to see much, only buildings. You cannot connect with the surroundings as in a bus. One thing one realises by travelling by monorail is that a good part of Mumbai is still low rise and if there is popular resistance and it is a big if we can still save the city from the evil nexus.

The bus is far more friendly easier of access than rail and Metro options. It is there at the street level, on the street. The bus is also more important than other modes in that it promotes community spirit much more. It can be visible if you take an early morning bus from Yaari road in Versova to Worli village which is full of fisherwomen. They have a very healthy interaction with the driver and the conductor, they exchange pleasantries. The same with state transport buses. One can see a villager passing on a packet to the driver to be handed over to someone at another village. In a crowded BEST bus people pass on money in a human chain to give money to the conductor and then the ticket is brought back to the buyer through another chain.

Such kind of socialising would be hard in a Metro or mono rail. The bus helps bring about socialisation like no other means of transport that is why it was at the centre of the struggle of black people, led by Rosa Parks which paved the way of the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King.The motor car, on the other hand, has been widely seen in many studies as a promoter of individuality, selfishness and hostility to other car users and vulnerable sections. Entirely decent people become aggressive, irritable in the car. Every one else is seen to be causing congestion, seen to a bad driver. When you suddenly acquire speed and power behind the vehicle without spending any energy of your own, you lose perspective. This is unlike a cyclist or a pedestrian who uses his or her own energy.

I met an Iranian national in a local train in Mumbai recently. I asked him about the Teheran Metro and he said with some regret that it is underground, you can’t get a view of the surroundings. Human beings need to interact with surroundings. That is why buildings wih high walls are such an eye sore, Sachin Tendulkar’s house is one such eyesore in Bandra. Overground Metro gives a good view but construction of an overground system would cause far more dislocation. That is why it is being strongly opposed in this Juhu area and other areas.

Coming back to biases against the bus.There are false ideas of status. People would rather jump into an auto than wait for a bus. BEST needs to learn some marketing from the auto drivers who keep calling out passengers. Extreme mismanagement by some IAS officers has led to the current slide of the BEST. During the regime of one notorious general manager came those horrible stainless steel bus stops, so unusable, such a torture to sit. And then far from modernising, the system is getting worse, till a few months ago the routes of some buses were written in chalk. Politicians have more interest in selling the land of bus stations. I would urge architecture students to visit some of the bus stations where land has been sold for luxury housing.The worst case of commercialisation. These are monstrous high rise structures , like the one at Mahim bus depot. . What a waste of urban space. Space in bus depots can be used creatively and for facilities like toilets and drinking water that commuters need but these are never thought of in our planning. Simple measures can bring more customers. It is happening right outside Bandra station on the west side. From platform one you walk a few feet and can step into a bus going to Mehboob Studio, Bandra Reclamation. The bus also halts now waiting for passengers to keep coming. Formerly, the system was very unprofessional and often it still is. Conductors ring the bell as soon as people get down at the station and do not wait for people to come. This is because of pressure from higher ups to complete a trip in a particular time which is wrong because in any case time is lost in traffic jams and it would make much more sense to get more passengers and more revenue with a wait for just a few minutes.

There is clearly a need to mobilise public opinion. Even the upper class is now waking up as is seen from the opposition to the coastal road. It is necessary and possible to build a coalition of people from different strata of society. Unfortunately our students, who could be potential protesters, are so docile. I was at the Kalina campus of the university last Sunday.. They do not intervene even in their surroundings and even when they are affected badly themselves. I saw that footpaths and shelters of bus stops outside the campus have been removed for the last several months because of a road widening project. So students will have to continue to suffer the summer heat and sun in the next few months. One was reminded of the line — April is the Cruellest Month —-from T.S. Eliot’s famous poem Wasteland and much of Mumbai now looks like wasteland through which running a BEST bus is no easy task.

But a section of the elite has a very different vision from a livable Mumbai many of us want.Recently, I was present at a fancy seminar where the keynote lecture was delivered by Mr Niranjan Hiranandani where he painted a vision for Mumbai for the year 2060. One of the projects is to bring foreigners by cruise ships to Mumbai and to make the city more livable for the wealthy. The trouble is all this is being done at the expense of common people which is now seen in a most gruesome way with bridges which are collapsing or are about to collapse.

We have to fight this onslaught with an alternative vision of a more humane urban infrastructure and reviving the BEST would be an important part of this endeavour. The architecture community and all thinking people could perhaps take inspiration from John Ruskin whose birth bicentenary falls this year. He believed life should be beautiful, inequality was an outrage and that capitalism leads to aesthetic degradation.

Clearly, there is a need for strong organisations of commuters which are totally lacking. In Los Angeles The Bus Riders Unions, mainly of coloured, discriminated communities, scored an important victory in 1994. It asserted that a dense network of bus routes is a higher priority for most working people than high-profile rail lines in the city and some of the funds for Metro lines be diverted for bus travel. The same argument can be made in Mumbai with relation to the Metro system. Some of its funds should be diverted to the BEST service.

It is sad that Dalits in India, who could be considered to have similar problems as blacks and who could be in the forefront of agitations for basic amenities, do not have the heightened political consciousness about public transport as the blacks in the U.S. showed. That is why last year they burnt BEST and ST buses during the caste agitation. If Dalits and other sections become more aware, more active it would be possible to make the authorities to change their priorities in favour of people, away from motor cars.

Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of a book seeking democratisation of the street, urban environment


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