The term itself is a misnomer in many ways. Which transport system in India is not public? The ubiquitous auto rickshaw is used as a “hop-in and hop-out” coach in many parts of India, operating with a fixed tariff rate on predetermined routes. In Udaipur (Rajasthan), a parterre and rear vomitory has been added to these motor powered three-seaters for greater comfort and economic viability. In places like Agra and Meerut, even this enhanced comfort and adornment has been shunned to yield the proverbial ‘can of sardines’. The scarcity of alternatives for commuters allows these uncomely modes of transit to be economically viable despite many handicaps, viz., police haftas, poor fuel quality and unending traffic jams.
And, then there are those long 10/12 seater minibuses christened as ‘tempos’, belching out smoke and noise, generally ferrying over a score of passengers, ensconced inside and clinging outside, and plying on the opposite lanes on various national highways. It is no use blaming the passengers for patronising these lusus naturae, for the plebeians have no options but to brook the monster. No respectable public transport ever touches their lives, as all public sector transport agencies vie for higher profits and focus less on public service. The passengers at major towns and cities seek non-stop journeys on buses with super fast and express tags, which facilitate embarking and disembarking solely at major stations. Various service providers, both public and private, bend backwards to meet these requirements. In Maharashtra, the state road transport Volvo buses compete with privately operated Volvo buses for nonstop commuting between major cities, while minor towns and villages continue to languish unconnected by any safe and reliable means of transport.
The recent fatalities involving Blueline buses in Delhi and the reactions of the public, courts, politicians and popular media are a fascinating study in the modern Indian psyche. The public is agonised but has no real alternatives to the insufficient service quantity and terrible service quality of public transport. Those who can afford, graduate to the motorcycles or cars at the first opportunity and add to the road congestion. The courts have rendered and continue to render yeoman service but unless the correct processes and delivery systems are in place, fatigue and inertia in implementing these court orders will set in the executing agencies. The politicians have not grabbed the opportunity to assume leadership role and seek major structural reforms, when the larger public opinion is on their side. Their maudlin display of public concern is, instead, focused solely on scoring petty political points. The popular media has, as is the wont, sensationalised and hyped the incidents rather than generate awareness on the subject and seek long-lasting solutions.
There are myriad aspects related to the problem of public transport in India that have been dissected by many expert committees, NGOs and researchers. The unregulated growth in the cities and government regulations permitting higher floor space ratios in suburban areas have promoted sprawl and led to a shifting of population away from the city centre. As the offices, workplaces, schools, hospitals, shopping and other utilities continue to be based in the city, they generate long trips between residences and almost all other trip destinations. This, in turn, puts greater pressure on the public transport.
There is another aspect of this quodlibet that defies logic. The public transport system in Delhi and many other places is run by private operators, but through individual bus owners rather than an established private agency. It reeks as a relic of the socialist era when the state did not trust the private corporate houses. It would be ideal if the bus system in cities like Delhi and Pune is corporatised and opened to two or three private players; these could be reputed corporate houses like Tatas, Reliance, Bharti or GVR. These firms could own, manage, operate and finance their own public transportation systems. They will bring in much needed efficiency and accountability into the system while economies of scale and market forces will keep the tariff rates competitive. The license fees from these operators can be used by the government to subsidise non-profitable routes. The advantages of the proposed system are numerous to recount and there aren’t many drawbacks of this system except certain teething problems. However, it has to be accompanied by strict regulations, performance standards, and overall coordination by an independent regulatory authority to ensure an efficacious network of services. The modernisation of transport offices, registration and driving licensing authorities has to be a concurrent step.
A half hearted approach by having public agencies contract with private firms to operate services on a system wide basis, for selective routes, or for selected functions like maintenance is a recipe for disaster. Such a half baked approach will only further empower and profit the patron-client ecosystem of politicians, bureaucrats and their cronies appointed to various transport boards.
Spare a thought now for the Indian automobile industry. Mumbai civic corporation says that it doesn’t want the Tatas Rs 1 lakh car on its roads. Do we need to go back to licensing to decide how many vehicles to produce every year or should we have better roads and infrastructure coupled with regulatory processes (like entry fees for private vehicles at peak hours and in city centres)? The answers are obvious but one can only hope and pray that the decision makers will soon overcome their misoneism.