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The Car Lobby Stifling Public Transport

By Vidyadhar Date

19 February, 2013

A former British minister is in serious trouble over driving his car at high speed and Lahore in Pakistan launched a Bus Rapid Transit system last week. These two developments, wide apart though they are, are of considerable relevance for Mumbai where the rich are getting away literally by overspeeding and killing innocent people. It is also a shame that Mumbai still is nowhere even thinking of launching a BRT even when Lahore has done it and Jakarta did it some eight years ago.

This shows the hold of the automobile lobby on the minds of the politicians and bureaucrats. While other cities are increasing their bus fleet, the authorities in Mumbai are shamelessly reducing the number of buses. And this cannot happen without the support of politicians. And passengers seem to be in for a hell of a time in the coming days unless there is strong resistance from the people.

The former British minister’s case has become quite messy after he admitted to having a relationship with a woman and then divorced his wife. But it all originates from his speeding 10 years ago. Chris Huhne was caught for speeding and was sure to lose his driving licence and his political career was in jeopardy. So his wife, a corporate economist and former adviser to the British department of business, Vicky Price, told the police that she was driving the car and not he. She later said she gave the wrong information under pressure from her husband. Both are now in trouble for making an allegedly false representation in the case.

The case shows how seriously traffic offences are taken in some other parts of the world and how callous our authorities are when the rich routinely kill utter innocents on roads in India. There have been three major incidents in Mumbai in the last few days.

In the first incident a Honda Accord rammed into six vehicles including a BMW and killed an auto rickshaw driver and a biker and seriously injured two others on February 13 on Bandra’s Linking Road, famous as an area for shopping. The driver drove on the wrong side of a one-way road and was speeding at some 100 km an hour in a busy area. He was apparently under pressure from the owner who was in a hurry to reach her office.Two days later an assistant director of a Salman Khan film Dabaang 2 was found driving drunk, speedily and to top it all it emerges that he does not even have a driving licence.

Mark Samuel, the film assistant director,was reportedly abusive and far from apologetic. The police now contemplate impounding his passport. Some show of courage by the police who otherwise plead helplessness in tackling traffic offences saying they are far too many. The result is that there is now no security of life for ordinary citizens at all. Only those sitting inside cars, those who can spend lakhs of rupees on buying these parasitical machines, are safe. Now, any one whether sitting in an auto-rickshaw or standing by the road side or walking with the utmost care can have no guarantee of life whatsoever. Yet, there are enough hacks who are quick to blame pedestrians for the crashes on the road and as one expert pointed out this happens because motor car manufacturing companies are among the biggest advertisers of the media. Outrageous, full-page advertisements luxury cars often on the front page, are a testimony to this. So, a mindset is sought to be created to suggest that it is always the victim who is at fault, the pedestrian has not taken care and so deserved to be run over, killed. I have not heard even once from rich organizations of motorists that they condemn motorists behaving like serial killes. In the latest incident of rash driving a Mercedes car knocked down five people in the early hours of February 18 in upscale Versova area.Two of them are in a critical condition. The victims include students and script writers. The police found that the owner was untraceable while the driver has confessed to the crime. Normally, rich people who commit such heinous crimes, get the driver to take the blame and go to jail. The former British minister’s incident mentioned above is particularly relevant in many cases.

Without high pressure advertising and complicit corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, the motor car lobby would have never made any headway. There is a telling article in a recent issue of Forbes (21-1-13) which reveals the alarm felt by the car lobby in the U.S. and Canada because the people there are increasingly fed up of cars. The younger generation there is no longer as enticed, thrilled by the motor car as in the previous decades. People are seriously thinking of giving up cars.In the past car companies had only to make out a case that their brand is better and so that brand should be bought. Now, they problem is to convince people that they need cars at all. And people don’t really need cars if you have a public transport worth the name. That is why public transport was systematically destroyed in the U.S. Whom are these guys kidding with their false propaganda ? More and more people are becoming aware of this treachery.

That is why the automobile lobby is now concentrating on countries like India and China, which are seen as huge markets. Corporate criminals are not interested in the damage cars do to the people and the environment. It is in this context that one needs to take a very serious view of what appears to be a planned weakening of the BEST bus undertaking in Mumbai. I was shocked to find in the last few days that on some buses almost half the number of seats are removed. Obviously, the idea is to create more space for standing and this means more people travel in discomfort and BEST can carry more people, show an increase in the number of passengers. Last week I got an invite from a French multinational company to participate in a workshop at Grand Hyatt , the luxury hotel. The company is in the business of providing Information Technology solutions to transport and I preferred to keep away. I have also noticed in conferences in that these are full of white Westerners from companies in this business. No problem with these companies. The question is why do our public transport undertakings do not in the first place provide even basic information, basic amenities to commuters and then suddenly they want to go for expensive technology, all in the name of world class infrastructure. In reality, the facilities are not even worthy of a small town. I have often found in the last few days that some buses do not even display their bus routes properly and these are shabbily written in small type by chalk so people waiting for a bus are left guessing and anxious to know which bus is coming. There cannot be a greater humiliation of common people than to deny them basic information. Bus design is getting worse, the exit from the front is narrower and it is quite an ordeal even for a thin person to go out.

The union urban development secretary Sudhir Chandra has done well to send a circular to state governments suggesting that a congestion tax be levied on motor cars entering busy areas in different cities. The problem is it is too big to be dealt with at bureaucratic level. The circular was issued a month ago and one has not heard anything since then because the political class just does not care about these things as its mindset is completely fixed on the motor car-led style of development.
The basically elitist mindset of senior Congress leaders is best illustrated by an observation by the Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda last week that golf should be made more affordable to people. He also gave a donation of Rs 10 lakh to the golf course in Gurgaon. A golf course looks very green but it is most destructive environmentally and there is a worldwide campaign against golf. There is also a close link between the automobile lobby and golf as car companies are the main sponsors of this alleged sport which the Economist described some years ago as one played by corrupt and lazy rich people.

Shockingly, CIDCO, the public sector body meant for the development of Navi Mumbai, has spent nearly Rs 40 crore and build a golf course in Kharghar in New Bombay. An outrageous waste of public money by any standards, especially in the context of the current drought in Maharashtra which is so severe that many areas face evaculation. The golf course looks even more sinister considering that it requires water in huge quantities. So that really gives a clue to the real elitist and anti-people character of the government machinery. And building a golf course also means generating more and more car trips.

So that is the scenario about promoting a car culture and insulting common commuters.It is obvious that the ruling class treats ordinary railway travelers too with contempt. I recently noticed this in Mangalore junction, quite a prominent station with a lot of traffric. Most of it does not even have a roof on the platform to protect people from rain and heat and this in an area with heavy rainfall and a lot of heat. There was roof over the heads of only air conditioned coaches while the second class travellers were left to bear the heat. Is this a railway station ? That was the common complaint I heard. Worse, this junction is far away from the city and one has to spend a lot of money to reach it and then suffer the heat. And often people go to the wrong station.The other station Mangalore Central is closer to the city and seems to have much better facilities. Can one imagine airline passengers being made to wait in heat at the terminal without a roof over their heads, with almost no facilities for sitting ? It is not surprising that Shashi Tharoor talked of cattle class. This contempt for ordinary people is deeply ingrained in many of those wielding power. It is sinister to deny funds for public transport and argue that these undertakings are not making profits. Public transport confers so many benefits like saving on fuel and occupying less road space and it cannot be seen only in terms of money. No less sinister is the role played by some alleged experts working at the behest of the car lobby. One wrote recently that the time of motorists is more valuable and so motorists need to be given more facilities. So, it is all right to make millions stand in the most crowded conditions in trains and travel for hours. Their time is not important. So people have to fight this vicious mindset as also the automobile lobby and the corrupt elements promoting it.

Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of the book Traffic in the era of climate change. Walking, cycling, public transport need priority. datebandra@yahoo.com





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