The money crisis is more painful because of is suddenness. But the government has been causing hardships to citizens for years through various ways. One is the anti-people policy on transport. The pain is spread over a long time and we do not feel it so intensely. The government has inflicted motorization on the country without any safeguards to vulnerable sections .
When the National Urban Transport Policy was announced in 2006 one had expected urban travel would become more tolerable. Unfortunately, 10 years down the line situation has worsened for the common people. NUTP had some good features, it sought promoting public transport , discouraging private transport, givingbetter facilities for pedestrians, curbs on car parking and use and so on.
One thought the government of India would seriously take stock of the situation after ten years to see what has gone wrong . Unfortunately, even an attempt has not been made.
The recently concluded 8th annual Urban Mobility India conference organized by the union urban development department at Gandhinagar in Gujarat would have been a good forum to evaluate the performance during its deliberations over four days. The issue did not figure anywhere in the agenda.
Similarly, glossed over was another serious problem. It is a blot on the government that it allows more people to be killed in road crashes in the country than anywhere else because of its callous policies.
This is also the birth centenary of the renowned expert in urban planning Jane Jacobs. This would have been a good occasion to stress the relevance of her views which focus on friendly streets which promote social life and democracy with restraint on cars, a more equitable use of land. Unfortunately, it is extremely unlikely that barring some exceptions anyone in the corridors of power has even heard of her.
The annual conference would be a very good occasion for a wide ranging discussion on serious issues affecting urban transport. But the show is dominated by self-congratulating bureaucrats,technocrats and others who do pay lip service to the cause of public transport but have very little understanding of the issue or commitment to it.Else, they would not hold the conference year after year in venues which are far far away from public transport. So, there are serious conceptual problems.
The government is driving in darkness, wrote Surjit Bhalla, analyst, in the Indian Express on November 19 on the demonetization issue. Similarly, it can be said that it is in fact quite blind to reality when it comes to public transport. Else, there would have been some visible seriousness in tackling them.
There were some stray discussions on the problem of car parking during the conference. But the real scandalous reality was completely ignored. The reality is that in Mumbai the municipal corporation has completely abandoned its responsibility. For the past several months it has allowed motorists free use of vital road space for parking day and night because it cannot decide on the revision of the charges being collected earlier. What a scandal this is. No less than the scandal of high rise car parks built at huge expense and where motorists simply do not park. It is much easier for them to park free on the road.And this is the picture all over the country.
One can understand the callousness of politicians and bureaucrats. One would expect young, bright researchers and their guides to show a better understanding of issues,a better awareness. I heard with attention some presentations on the transport problems faced by the poor. But these were couched in such terrible, boring jargon and mathematical figures that the human element was totally lost. Humans are treated like mere statistics here. Who are the victims, what were they doing ?. We heard nothing about their misery, their problems. This happens when there is no grounding in basic problems. When you are discussing something as basic as dislocation of people caused by the upper class driven project of beautification of Sabarmati river coastline, you give at least some picture of their problems, not mathematical formulae.
And as for the authoriies, please stop fooling people by constant talk of smart transport and information and communication technology (ICT) when on the ground you are humilitating the masses by giving them primitive bus transport even in cities like Mumbai and Pune.
ICT is important but here even the basic are not in place. That is why the emphasis on ICT in the keynote address by Mr Chang Woon Lee, president of the Korea Transport Institute sounded so odd. And here is the real irony. It really exposes the hollow sysem. The address of Mr Lee was held up for more than 10 minutes because his computer for the power point presentation simply would not start. It was so embarrassing even to witness this in the audience.
We need to first do the basic work rendered by the Koreans. Their comprehensive reform in 2004 drew people out of their cars and into public transport by modernizing and expanding the bus system ..and integrating it with both metro and a new system of feeder buses. It has won praise from the World Bank.On the other hand, a section of our bureaucrats and politicians are making things worse for public transport and better for the car lobby and motorists.
The glib talk at mobility conferences is a smokescreen for a most glaring failure on the urban transport scene.
The decline in urban transport is most visible in the case of the BEST bus undertaking in Mumbai. The BEST had been a good example for the rest of the country for decades. Its virtual collapse is visible all over and it should make us all sit back Yet, the authorities remain indifferent. Look at something happening right next to Mantralaya.
There is a bus stop next to the Y.B. Chavan auditorium and the stop itself bears the name of Mr Chavan. So the authorities need to be less callous. It is badly located and secondly cars are parked right in front blocking the space for buses as well as commuters. So commuters are forced to stand on the road. If they get knocked down by a speeding vehicle, the authorities will blame them for trespassing or jaywalking. And this is not a one time scene. It is always there. I have been visiting this area almost daily as a journalist covering Mantralaya for the last four decades.
In the vicinity are buildings housing top ranking government bureaucrats, retired bureaucrats (two ex cabinet secretaries lived here), high court judges and there are bungalows of ministers.
There is another bus stop near Mantralaya where cars are permanently parked in the space where buses should halt. The stop is in front of Palm Court building in the upper class Oval area. And such is the scenario all over Mumbai. Half the stops do not even have a shelter. The affluent residents of the Oval live in lovely old Art Decco type buildings and some of them are quite aggressive about preserving public spaces. But all these buildings have very little space for car parking and most residents park their cars free on the road.Free. Yes, the rich are having a good time everywhere.
Big pronouncements are made about improving transport, making it smart with new technology. It always sounds hollow. Even The much hyped, trumpeted Make in India event inaugurated by Prime Minister Modi in Mumbai some months ago sounded hollow for the same reason.
If only the foreign delegates had looked around, they would have realized how hollow these claims are. There is a clear evidence of the collapse of administration . if one visits the eastern side of the Bandra railway station which is the gateway to the Bandra Kurla complex , the venue of the Make India spectacle. The complex is a major business and financial centre. This gateway is in a shameful state and this exposes all the ludicrous talk of smart cities and governance.
Mr Modi wants to spend nearly one lakh crore rupees for the proposed high speed railway link between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. But look at the hypocrisy and inefficiency. Look at the state of the Bandra terminus in Mumbai from where currently trains leave for his home town Ahmedabad. There is not even a proper access to the Terminus . In fact, its access has become more difficult. You just cannot reach the place by public transport. A bus service to the terminus has in fact been stopped and one has to reach there either by a car, a taxi or an auto rickshaw. One cannot even walk because the whole road is filthy. A flyover has been built recently but it is serving little purpose as vehicles find it difficult to reach the area because of huge traffic congestion. This glass-roofed terminus itself is badly designed, environmentally unfriendly and unfriendly for users.
The area under the flyover has been handed over for car parking and the whole area is shamefully dirty and neglected. There is no point in blaming the slums nearby. There is simply no evidence of administration in the area which is more shocking considering that it is so close to the head office of the MMRDA, the metropolitan authority and the residence of the Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray whose party is in a majority in the civic body for the past several years.
Buses find it almost impossible to reach Bandra east station because of congestion caused mainly by an excess number of auto rickshaws which are totally unregulated. Bus commuters have to wait in the most filthy conditions and amidst deafening traffic noise and fumes. A dirty drainage nulla flows right behind the bus stop. It never seems to have been cleaned which is clear from the dark colour and the stench. Is this how you look after a gateway to a modern business and financial centre ? Have the politicians and bureaucrats no self respect ?
The road from the Bandra east railway station to Kala Nagar near the Bandra Kurla complex is in an utter mess which is a pity because it is named after Anant Kanekar, a left-wing writer, known particularly for his book on the Soviet Union whose title translates as From the fog to the red star, that means for despair to hope. Here there is a reversal , things have worsened, not become better.
A skywalk built in the area has served to create space for unauthorized car parking and dumping of garbage on the road below. The Indian State is bound by an international convention to provide facilities for the mobility of the physically handicapped. But the State makes things tough even for the physically fit. It is tough to climb the skywalk and walk down. There is still a plot nearby which can be used as a bus terminal. But they want to sell it for money and just do not want to promote public transport even as they mouth empty slogans off and on. A bus depot has been created on a small plot of land and was inaugurated two years ago by Mr Aditya Thackeray, son of the Sena chief, who is the chief of the youth wing of the Sena but holds no position in the administration. The whole area is a disgrace for an administration claiming to represent efficiency and smart governance.
And the authorities also need to clean up the Kurla terminus. The approach is unbelievably filthy and has remained so since a long time. The nallas flowing near the terminus are dirty and stinking. The government gives a lot of importance to airports saying these are the gateways to the country and to our cities. But then the railway terminals at Bandra and Kurla are also major entry points. But since, our upper class now travels mainly by air , not train, the authorities do not care. So, in Mumbai there is virtually no decent public transport connecting the three main transport hubs to the the city and suburbs. By these hubs I mean the international and domestic airport, the Kurla railway terminus and the Bandra railway terminus. Both the railway terminals should have been properly aligned with the suburban stations which are some distance away. But it is a pain to reach Bandra terminus from Bandra suburban station or Kurla terminus from the Tilak Nagar suburban station. The callousness towards public transport at the Mumbai airport has to be seen to be believed. Even small countries have better local bus connectivity with their airports as I saw in Colombo and elsewhere. The two miserable bus stops outside the international airport in Mumbai, one of them without even a shed overhead, are worse than even bus stops in neglected rural areas
One of the essential suggestions of the NUTP was that civic bodies prepare comprehensive mobility plans (CMP). Few cities have done so. Mumbai has finally prepared one but refuses to share it with citizens. So much for transparency and democratic decision making. Transport activist Ashok Datar who got access to the plan and read it says it is bland, has no vision and is full of errors. The plan, strangely, expects the share of private vehicles to fall in view of the coming Metro and other public transport projects. But all indications that the opposite is happening for decades and the trend continues and things are poised to get worse. A recent report shows actually that railway journeys between Andheri and Borivali are now fewer due to increased road network and more vehicles on the road. More and more people are now living in the distant suburbs beyond Borivali, spending more time, money and in more exhausting, suffocating conditions in trains.
Even the conservative David Cameron asked his ministers and bureaucrats some time ago to use public transport. Our bureaucrats need not take the bus but they could at least walk out of their offices and sprawling apartments and take a look.
The government does not want to spend on improving the bus service but has enough funds to squander on useless airports which have become white elephants.The Jalgaon airport opened by former President Pratibha Patil in her constituency has not seen any flight being operated since the inauguration in 2012. Similar is the story about airports at Pathankot and elsewhere.
There is also apparently a silent conspiracy between the civic administration and rich residents who own several cars and so park their cars on the road .That is most clearly the reason the callous administration thinks it is o.k. not to build a footpath.. A road parallel to B.J Road on the sea front does not have any footpath at all. Many of these rich residents are also enjoying a huge subsidy as they are charged extremely low rent for their leased lands.
Another contradiction here. The promenade is fine and some residents have done a good job looking after it and put so much greenery on the Bandra Fort. But the State is totally callous when it comes to the needs of people who have to walk outside these protected environments. This means the State is neglecting the needs of more than 99 percent of the people. And these administrators have the gumption to talk of smart cities. Do they have any conscience ?
Mr Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of the book Traffic in the era of climate change