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The Rape In Delhi And The Neglect Of Public Transport

By Vidyadhar Date

19 December, 2012

The horrible gang rape and assault on a girl medical student in New Delhi on the night of December 16 has led to calls for hanging and castration of the criminals. But the incident needs to be seen more critically in the wider social context of the neglect of public transport and people’s basic needs of mobility. Unlike other rapes this has taken place in a public transport vehicle, though it is privately owned. The authorities are as responsible as the culprits.

There is some awareness in the government about the problems of public transport but this is mainly among a few bureaucrats in Delhi and the main problem is that there is a complete lack of political will to promote public transport and curb private vehicles as recommended by the National Urban Transport Policy of 2006. This is my view after a study of several years and participation in the annual international urban mobility conferences in Delhi in the last three years organized by the union urban development department and the Institute of Urban Transport .

The latest conference was held in Delhi earlier this month in the very exclusive confines of the posh Maneskshaw Centre of the Indian Army at Dhaula Kuan and there were many progressive voices raised there which considerably impressed Peter Newman, the author of the book Overcoming Automobile Dependence. He told me so.

But in reality moving about in Delhi, the capital itself, is extremely hazardous and public bus transport is not easy to access. I soon found this out for myself, though I had experienced this earlier.. There is a wide divergence between how politicians and the corporate elite want to configure our cities and the actual state of affairs. On the last day of the conference there was a discussion on Smart Cities and information technology solutions in which representatives of Siemens, Infosys and IBM made presentations. Smart cities yes, but how about providing basic services to people, upholding their right to life and ensuring that people travel with dignity and comfort or that they are not killed in public transport ?

The actual state of affairs is deadly, literally. First, to cross the road on foot to reach Manekshaw Centre is like confronting death. There is relentless vehicular traffic, mainly private cars, on the Delhi Gurgaon highway and there is no traffic signal here. Then I remembered what a United Nations official Kulwant Singh had told me some time earlier that it takes him almost half an hour to cross the road in Gurgaon.So while private cars are pampered, pedestrians and public transport are brazenly discriminated against, humiliated, in fact.

And the nearest bus shelter for Manekshaw Centre is no less than 1.5 km which is at Dhaula Kuan. One can imagine the plight of several workers who work in the Centre and in surrounding areas. This makes nonsense of all the talk of seamless transport, smart , high tech transport that one constantly hears from authorities. And the walk on this stretch is quite hazardous as well, especially in front of the high tech military hospital in the area where one can never get access in case you are knocked down by a car.

The only possible reason why there is no bus stop anywhere close to the Centre is obviously that they do not want to hinder car traffic which always is given priority and that is really the undoing of the public transport system. One day I took a bus for conference delegates and even this was not allowed to stop at the Delhi Transport Corporation bus stop which is 1.5 km. away . So our bus took a long detour, went past a fly over over a long distance and we were offloaded on the other side of the road. We had to make a steep climb up a bridge and even here were stopped as some VIP vehicle was passing by and we commoners were seen as a threat to the VIP. After finally managing to get a DTC bus, I found that it broke down on the way and there was another long walk to another bus stop. Anyway, it is always good to walk and take public transport as it is the only way one can understand the plight of common people which one can never imagine from the luxury of an air conditioned car.

As for the rape, another sad part is that it took place in a public bus and this can undermine women’s faith in public transport. As it is women are subjected to other forms of sexual harassment in public transport. If the government is serious about its stated public objective of promoting public transport, it must take steps to make public transport safe and reliable.

Delhi city’s planning also needs reorientation. As the Unified Transport and traffic Infrastructue and Planning and Engineering Centre UTTIPEC) in Delhi has pointed out there are vast stretches of roads in Delhi which have a cluster of private fortresses with high walls. These make life on the outside unsafe. A majority of people are treated as unwanted in our system.

Jane Jacobs, the most influential author on urban issues, is famous for her stress on people-friendly streets, localities with mixed neighbourhoods, all streets should have shops and this helps prevent crime to a substantial extent in urban areas because people constantly go to shops and the shop-keeper looks out on the street. Eyes on the street. That is her famous coinage. Unfortunately, she is ignored even by our architects and planners. Of course many bureaucrats and politicians are not even likely to have heard of her. Her book Death and Life of Great American Cities written in 1961 is the best guide for a people friendly street environment.

At the recent urban mobility conference, Mr Dinesh Mohan, the transport expert from IIt Delhi, did well to stress the importance of shops and hawkers on streets as a way to prevent crime. Facilities for hawkers should be integrated into urban design, he said, though he did not mention Jane Jacobs. In Asian countries street crime is low because of shops on the ground floor, he said.

Mr Dinesh Mohan also lashed out at the neglect of non-motorised transport and the emphasis on high tech, expensive transport projects. Interestingly, the urban development minister, Mr Kamal Nath, concentrated on speaking on high tech, expensive Metro rail projects and he had nothing to say about pedestrians and non-motorised vehicles even though these form a bulk of the urban transport scene. Of course, safety of commuters seldom seems to bother authorities and they seldom talk about it unless there is a hue and cry over a case like the recent rape and assault. Mr Jaipal Reddy, the then urban development minister, had shown much more realism when he spoke two years ago at the mobility conference in Delhi. He sincerely demanded a better deal for public transport and pedestrians and lamented the lack of political will. And that is where the rub lies. Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi recently went by a special bus for a Congress conclave on the outskirts of Delhi. Mercifully they avoided the use of luxury cars. They apparently wanted to make a gesture, though it seems so empty. But they clearly need to understand much more about the fate of public transport users. They should realize that public transport is crucial in the context of climate change, improving our carbon footprint, reducing emissions and meeting the growing challenge of congested cities. These are all international issues. Let the leaders at least heed international opinion, if not the cry of common people who are victims of a brutal transport system. It is often said in respect of Mumbai’s overcrowded trains that politicians must be forced to travel in them to understand the gravity of the problem. Now, people should insist that politicians in Delhi should travel by DTC and other buses. These guys talk of globalization all the time. Why don’t they travel by public transport as leaders in other countries, especially in Europe, do ?

Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of the book Traffic in the Era of Climate Change. Walking, Cycling, Public Transport need Priority.




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