One has to be really affluent or be in rich surroundings to walk with ease in India, it seems. I was in a very upmarket gated colony of bungalows in Bangalore last week. There were footpaths on both sides, lined with palm trees, there was little traffic and one could enjoy the walking.
This is a highly protected environment. The rich take care of one another . Here the speed limit is strictly enforced and a security man rushes in if you increase the speed.
But since everyone here is so well off, no one needs to show off and life goes on gently. It is a bit boring actually with one villa looking like another and trees of only one species, all of uniform height.
But outside, in the rest of the country life is hell due to growing inequalities, motorists are rude and the government encourages motor cars at the expense of common people.
The Prime Minister is very upbeat about efficiency in bringing about a cashless society. Why does he not show any concern for efficiency in our transport system and on our roads ? An MLA and a builder of his party in fact wants to convert a lovely walking path , lined with trees,in Malabar Hill in Mumbai, into a motorable road. That is the commitment of the party to common people. Depriving them of even existing facilities and imposing more hardships on them by pampering the car lobby. Just to put the record straight the Congress has been equally guilty on this score.
The authorities should wake upto the hazards posed by cars in view of the fire in the government’s Sydenham college library in Mumbai that destroyed thousands of books last Sunday. Cars parked on both sides of the road make it difficult for fire engines to enter. So at least self interest should drive these worthies to think afresh and not insist on parking their cars on the road.
An efficient transport system, as is accepted now in the developed world, means priority for public transport, curbs on buying and parking cars, optimum use of roads by providing more and friendly space to pedestrians, making car parking prohibitively costly, reducing use of fuel and the huge burden fuel import causes to our finances. Why has one never heard Mr Modi or his ministers ever talk of this huge drain on our financial resources caused by the pampering of the motor car lobby and oil imports ?
Curbs on cars are also essential for meeting the requirements for fulfilling India’s international commitment to lower the carbon footprint. Incentives are given in the West for industries which reduce carbon emissions. Here we have millions of people who are helping reduce emission by walking, occupying very little road space . They should be given incentives,dignity,respect. Yet, the government and the upper class treats them with absolute contempt. They may make some pro-pedestrian statements for public consumption. But people can see through this fraud.
The residents of buildings around Sydenham college are uniquely placed in that they are so close to the major train terminus of Churchgate and so they should not depend on cars at all. And with the huge increase in Ola taxies, there should be even less need for cars. But the car remains for the rich a status symbol. Now, these residents want permission to redevelop their buildings so that they can get more FSI so they can build towers and create more parking space. But all evidence shows that this will not stop the free parking on roads. The residents have been opposing tooth and nail any suggestion to pay for their use of public space. That is how the rich have a jolly good time, they profit from the system while the losses are passed on to the public, to the poor.The cashless economy that Mr Modi is so gung ho about benefits the rich. Only those with smart phones can hire Ola and Uber taxies which means they pay much less than an ordinary person would have to pay for travelling by an auto rickshaw or a kali peeli black and yellow taxi. What an irony we have created a system in which a poor person pays more than a rich man !
The residents of the posh colony in Bangalore I mentioned earlier frequently take the Ola which is more convenient than driving a car or hiring a driver. But an ordinary visitor to the colony pays much more by riding in an auto rickshaw or a taxi. Bangalore railway station is more friendly in some respects than CST or Dadar in Mumbai. I saw a working elevator at KSR in Bangalore but after reaching Dadar by train I found that the elevator was not functioning. What a disgrace. And these people talk of making Mumbai an international,smart city.It is the same story at several stations in the country. Mr Modi’s home town Ahmedabad is an exception. This is a clear case of favouritism. I found lifts working at all the platforms at Ahmedabad station. Most stations in India do not have a single lift or an elevator.
With a little imagination railway stations can provide a lot of relief to people arriving from other parts of the country by giving information about bus and train connections. Even this basic courtesy is not extended with the result passengers get fleeced by cabs and auto rickshaws with the cops and the transport department authorities acting in collusion in this robbery. So much for the talk of smart governance of the BJP and the Congress.
As for black money, it is clear that there the car business depends heavily on black money. Income tax authorities have now , in December, 2016, realized after all these years that many buyers of cars do not even pay taxes. What were they doing all these years ? Are not car buyers required to submit their pan card details as ordinary mortals are supposed to give for ordinary transactions ? The whole business reeks of crime especially when it comes to fraudulent import of luxury cars used by film stars and sports celebrities indulging in massive tax evasion which is so blatant.
The only bright spot is that with curbs on black money, car production and sale have declined. And with Ola and Uber there will be less assault of cars on roads. But this still does not solve the problem because public transport still remains seriously neglected. I saw an encouraging sign in Bangalore. The state government has decided to expand the fleet of its public transport buses and reach to every corner eliminating private transport operators who are up in arms. The record of the Mahaashtra government in comparison is shameful. It is doing little to protect and expand the ST bus network. Actually, ST buses in the state and elsewhere are quite efficient, they run on time,fares are compartiely lower and they are much more accessible to ordinary people. On several routes it is very easy to get a seat. And in this season you don’t need an a.c. bus.An ordinary ST bus is fine. One only has to discard one’s ego. Try taking an early morning ride out of Mumbai. You can get any number of buses towards Pune and the Konkan if you stand opposite the Asiad bus stand that shamefully is located right on the road.
Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of the book Traffic in the Era of Climate Change. Walking, Cycling, Public Transport Need Priority