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Politicians And Bureaucrats Need To Learn Basics About Urban Transport

By Vidyadhar Date

14 December, 2013

Reforms for public transport should start with sensitizing politicians and bureaucrats. They are the ones showing little understanding of issues and so are obsessed with flyovers and cars rather than people. This view was expressed by some participants in a discussion on the National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP) at the recently concluded 6th Urban Mobility India conference in Delhi.

There is some understanding of issues at the bureaucratic level in Delhi with Mr Sudhir Krishna, secretary of the urban development department, and Mr S.K. Lohia, officer on special duty in the ministry, at the helm. But transport is a state subject and there is apathy at the bureaucratic and political level in the state governments .

One of the few exceptions in the bureaucracy is Mr P.S. Kharola, managing director of the Bangalore Metro rail corporation and IIT product, who has written an article recently in the Economic and Political Weekly arguing for priority for public transport.

The general view is that several government officials even in transport departments are not aware of the NUTP. Mr Dario Hidalgo, chief of Embarq, an international organization working on transport planning, said most of the funds sent by the Central government in India, were used by state governments for building flyovers and other projects which benefited motorists, not common people.

Mr Prasanna Patwardhan, a prominent urban bus transport operator, said a lot of space was given for car parking on roads but no thought was being given for bus depots or bus parking. Mr O.P. Agarwal, a World Bank official, formerly involved in the drafting of NUTP as a government official, drew attention to severe restrictions on car parking in Washington and other places.

Mr Enrique Penalosa, a leading exponent of public bus transport, said in his keynote address that to demand more space for pedestrians and buses on roads was not being Communist, it was common sense. Even a 12 year old child will tell you that buses, not cars, need priority.

Low income cities, he said, can become quite livable with pro-people, inexpensive measures. The main point, he stressed, was that urban land should not be in private hands. India will be in a mess if it allows the private sector to become a big land owner. He also called for better design for streets. If the walls of buildings are high and sterile, walking will not be pleasant even if footpaths are wide.

Flyovers are like bombs, they damage cities and highways are like poisonous rivers, he said. There should be giant sidewalks as in Paris.

In the last century New York was poorer than many Indian cities of the present, but it allotted over 300 acres for a single public park. In India if you see a big public park, people say it belongs to British times. He meant that little has been done in recent times in India to create public space.

The problem is not of money, as Mr S.K. Lohia of the urban development ministry said in a recent interview. The issue is more of understanding and awareness.

As some observers pointed out some sections in in the ruling class are not interested in moving common people, they look at mass transport projects mainly to promote the builder lobby which can build luxury houses in the new corridor and amass profits. This has repeatedly become clear. For example, a private developer wanting to create a new city of some 4000 acres near Dombivali, a remote suburb of Mumbai, said the project will depend on new corridors to be built by the government. Interestingly, Mr Ajit Pawar, deputy chief minister of Maharashtra, said on December 13 that higher floor space index should be given to buildings along the route of the Metro rail network now under construction in Mumbai. So, this will clearly help the builder lobby. This will result in throwing out poor people from these areas. If the government is wise, it should force car owners living close to Metro stations to use the Metro lines, not their cars. The game plan now is that the rich want to use the Metro without giving up on their motor cars. Cars impose a heavy burden on society in terms of pollution, congestion and foreign exchange needed for fuel import. Experts view with extreme suspicion the move to increase the sprawl in Delhi through extension of more and more Metro rail lines into neighbouring areas. The idea is to make urban core areas fit only for the rich and throw the poor out and make them commute long distances.

The trouble is builders and dubious mining companies are now sponsoring major literary and art festivals. The Times literary festival in Mumbai earlier this month was sponsored by Lodha builders. Why should the Times of India , with all its money, have to depend on a sponsor like that ?. But then it even took sponsorship of the dubious Manikchand Gutka, producers of a questionable tobacco product, for its Filmfare award functions for many years. Charles Correa, reputed architect, said at the festival that he would not have attended if he had known that this builder was involved. He was responding to a query by a lady in the audience about the role of the builder in the not so healthy transformation of the mill area in Mumbai. Unfortunately, many people in the art and literary community are cosy with capitalists despite their talk of being liberals. They remain silent and refuse to raise their voice against multinational corporations, imperialists, big builders and so on.

That apart there are not many democratic institutions working for the cause of public transport like the Institute for Democracy and Sustainability, headed by Mr Rajendra Ravi, which has done a lot of work among cycle rickshaws pullers and has brought out a number of booklets to create awareness about mass transport. More importantly, its publications are in Hindi and it is in the national language and regional language that such knowledge needs be made accessible.

Another good think tank and network of activists and transport experts is the non-profit Sustainable Urban Mobility Network (SUMNET) which continuously monitors and questions policies and programmes and provides concrete suggestions. Excellent work is being done in IIT Delhi by experts like Dinesh Mohan and Geetam Tiwari but there appears to be little output , beyond very technocratic exercises, on public transport issues from other IITs. I saw a stall of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, for the first time at the conference in Delhi. What is the use of such organizations if they do not use their expertise in improving the design of pubic spaces, street furniture, railway and bus stations and the like ? They need to interact with people and public projects and not work . There is a big wide world beyond the corporate world, that cries out for the attention of technocrats who need to come out of their ivory towers. Some of the presentations by highly qualified technical people at the Delhi conference were so boring and irrelevant that Sujit Patwardhan, an activist, said he may not attend next year. But there is also a lot of positive outcome from the conference.

(Mr Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of the book Traffic in the Era of Climate Change. Email datebandra@yahoo.com)


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