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Mumbai: Despite advances in technology, life is getting worse for users of public transport . This is at least partly because of the callous way the technology is being handled.

The seats in the big brand new coaches in the local Western railway trains in Mumbai are clearly uncomfortable. I tried out both in first and second class. I talked with passengers and they agreed but people just don’t complain about the terrible quality of our mass produced industrial furniture. And things are getting worse. There is appalling silence in the media on the issue.

There are apparently some sadists in the railway administration which minister Suresh Prabhu, a friend of the media, needs to note. The steel benches in several railway stations in the country are a torture to sit on . The makers seem to lack basic understanding of the human body, ergonomics and engineering. Users are not looking for comfort or luxury. Just give us simple benches with a little back rest. The old, wooden ones were fine and even the more recent cement blocks on suburban platforms in Mumbai are are o.k., at least they don’t torture you.

And all this is happening with collaborations with foreign high tech companies. But even big companies and their executive can make serious mistakes when it comes to public transport. Look at this report in the Telegraph of London of two years ago.

It is a minor miscalculation, but one that will cost the French taxpayer a fortune, the report says.

France’s national rail operator SNCF – which runs its prestigious TGV fast trains – has sparked hilarity, anger and ridicule after building a new generation of regional trains that are too wide for 1,300 stations, meaning platforms will have to be “shaved” to stop them getting stuck.

The appalling blunder, which the French transport minister dubbed “comically tragic”, has already reportedly cost the state-controlled SNCF some €50 million (£40.5 million), sparking uproar at a time of austerity.

It was revealed by Canard Enchaîné, the satirical weekly, whose cartoon showed a line of commuters on a busy platform being told: “The Paris-Brest train is entering the station. Please pull in your stomachs.”

The mistake was made as part of a €15 billion makeover of France’s Regional Express Trains, or TER, shared between Alstom, the French trainmaker and Bombardier, its Canadian rival.

But this stupidity at least did not result in torture of commuters as is happening in India.

The BEST bus shelters made of stainless steel are a study in torturous design, not fit to sit or stand in, clearly meant only for advertisers. The old ordinary cement concrete shelters were quite functional and certainly not a torture. We badly need a sound technology critic who will challenge the user unfriendly , mass produced, badly designed equipment in public spaces. This is the 50th year of the excellent book Unsafe at Any Speed by Ralph Nader. He thoroughly exposed the automobile industry’s callousness. Attempts were made to murder him, malign his reputation. That is what anti-people, big brands with alleged high technology can do

Several Mumbai IIT engineers are working for months on creating racing cars. Fine, but why can’t some of this technical excellence translate into benefits for the common man ? The least one expects is that new technology does not make life worse . In the suburban trains benches with concave and convex shaped back rests push the commuter forward making life miserable. I have been travelling by suburban trains for 45 years. They were always crowded and suffocating. But the seats were at least not a torture. That is a sure recipe for back problems in the long run. So good for some orthopaedics but bad for the public. It is amazing that amidst all the talk of new technology, there is not the slightest understanding of ergonomics. So all this equipment produced by high technology and supervised by well paid engineers is utter trash in reality. The seats in the new coaches in suburban trains are an insult to commuters and literally a pain in the back. In the olden days wooden benches were very user-friendly, simple.

New technology has brought discomfort in BEST buses as well. The earlier plain seats were quite comfortable and secure , now several seats are broken, shaky. The screen for showing commercials is placed right above the seats of senior citizens in a way that makes them vulnerable to head injuries. So things are getting worse, instead of getting better.

And what about the National Institute of Design. I wonder what these organizations do . Should they not play a more socially useful role, a little social intervention, a little guidance from them , interaction with the public with public administrators will help a lot. Don’t they have any outreach programme ?

That apart, all indications are that the BEST is being systematically sabotaged.. One wonders if this is happening in league with the private vehicle lobby as has happened in the U.S. With the decline of BEST buses, auto rickshaws have swarmed the streets adding to the traffic jam.

GPS and other forms of new technology should have been used on a priority for BEST buses. Instead, the new technology is being used for private taxies of international brands like Ola and Uber which has brought down the cost of travel for the upper class while the poorer classes suffer more due to decline in public transport. I recently travelled a distance of 10 km by an Ola cab for only Rs. 67 with another passenger in Mumbai. With all the a.c. comfort, and a pick up from one’s home, the fare was only a little more than the bus fare for two persons and with extreme stress of long waits for the bus. The BEST bus system works in the most primitive conditions, no route information at bus stops, leave alone electronic indicators. In the last 10 years, the country’s model transport system has been wrecked from within both by the political and bureaucratic class.

Share auto rickshaws take away business from BEST by operating right in front of BEST buses even while charging more than the fixed amount. It is now common to find a passenger sitting next to the auto rickshaw driver in the Mumbai suburbs. Yet, Mumbai is perhaps the only city in the country where in most parts auto rickshaws and taxies do ply according to meter. But this is also a poor reflection on the administration in the rest of the country.

Mr Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of the book Traffic in the era of climate change.

One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    The indiscriminate use of technology is clearly visible in the seat arrangement in railway platform seating chairs. Corporate contractors are taking the issue and people fighting against privatisation of railway services are made to leave any work . Some of theses guillable people and culture. The seats are not to the best accessible to differently abased .

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