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Government’s Hypocrisy On Urban Transport

By Vidyadhar Date

26 February, 2014

The good news is that the government has begun though only in a small way to create awareness about sustainable transport. The bad news is that in reality the government is stabbing people in the back.

After all the damage has been done the Central government has woken up to the need for sustainable transport. It has launched a public awareness programme on Doordarshan’s DD News to promote walking, cycling and public transport . It admits things have gone horribly wrong. There was a misplaced emphasis, it admits, on flyovers and increased motorization.

The programme sponsored by the urban development ministry is well-intended. But look at the policies followed elsewhere and in reality. While one arm of the government seeks to promote public transport, another arm, Akashvani, is promoting the motor car. And shamefully this is being done through a programme sponsored by a motor car company called DSK Toyota. This programme in the morning prime time on the Mumbai B station glamorises, idolizes the motor car. So even a public service broadcasting utility with a fine tradition is being subverted from within and is promoting vested interests.

And did we not hear during the Delhi assembly poll campaign how Mrs Sheela Dixit, the then Congress chief minister, openly talked of building more double decker flyovers. And in one nauseatingly repeated and idiotic Bharat Nirman advertisement the flyover is touted as a symbol of progress.

And then how cynical and anti-people the government is in real practice can be seen from the recent reduction in the tax on SUVs (sports utility vehicles in the interim budget presented in Delhi. At the same time public transport buses are being taxed far more than private cars. No relief for them. The SUV is the worst kind of a vehicle for even rich nations, not to speak of India with its growing inequalities and poverty. But it is precisely the poverty angle that the government wants to deny with such measures.

. The issue is best dealt with by Dr Hemant Morparia, in a brilliant cartoon in Mumbai Mirror on February 19. It shows riders in an SUV (sports utility vehicle) saying poverty seems to have declined as they cannot see beggars at traffic junction from their tall vehicles.

The term sports utility vehicle is itself a misnomer since the vehicle has nothing to do with sports. It should be discouraged in every way. It is a monstrous vehicle which has been roundly condemned in a book by Keith Bradhser `High and Mighty. The dangerous rise of the SUV.’

The SUV is a symbol of everything that is wrong with the transport policy. It is a reflection of the arrogance of the rich, they are perched high in these vehicles and can look down with contempt on ordinary mortals, the SUVs grab much more space on roads, consume more fuel and threaten the lives of others on the road. I am shocked to find that many otherwise progressive people see nothing wrong in using these vehicles.

Only last year the union finance minister Chidambaram had increased the tax on the SUV saying the vehicle occupies more space and so needs to be discouraged. It is ironical that the SUV now gets the maximum sops, points out Anumita Roychowdhary, a transport analyst and campaigner for clean air.

SUVs consume diesel and diesel emissions cause cancer, says Sunita Narain, director general of the Centre for Science and Environment, quoting the observation of the World Health Organisation. She made the point during the Bus Karo programme on TV on February 23.

This particular episode was meant to promote cycling in urban areas in the country but typically it was Delhi-centric. Cycling was a great vehicle of empowerment for women in the West since the beginning of the 20th century, even earlier. Rahul Gandhi, who harps on empowering women, has completely missed this phenomenon and this programme also overlooked this angle.

Delhi is now rated the most polluted city in the world which is a shame for the political leadership because it has consistently promoted the polluting motor car under the illusion of progress . All these years they only thought Delhi’s buses were the cause of pollution as their dark fumes were much more visible.So CNG was brought in and it reduced the menace for some time but it grew again as more and more cars flooded the streets because of the pro-car policies of the ruling class.

Mr S.K. Lohia, officer on special duty in the urban development department, said cycling should become a fashion statement. Amit Bhat of EMBARQ correctly pointed out that road construction should start not from the centre but from the edges.Traditionally most space was allotted to cars. In fact, the construction should start from the edge of the road, most space should be given to pedestrians and cyclists and then the remaining space be given to cars. Compere actor Rahul Bose seemed to have a good awareness of issues and volunteered to cycle for a few days along with a cyclist, whom he interviewed and who plans to journey from Kashmir to Kanyakumari on the bicycle. But then why were all the participants in the panel made to sit in those plush sofas ? So out of character with any serious discussion, especially one on cycling.

And few people are going to be impressed by elitist and symbolic car-free days as at the fashionable seafront Carter Road in Bandra in Mumbai on February 23. It only causes terrible traffic jams in other areas because motorists simply divert to other roads. There is no education of motorists whatsoever. If one looks at the comments of some motorists on Facebook it is more clear than ever that many are extremely uncivilized and would any day like to crush a pedestrian. A no-car day will work only if it is for a whole suburb or the city.

Nothing was done to create public awareness about the car-free day even in neighbouring areas. Even early morning joggers in Joggers Park next to Carter Road had little idea. Some of these joggers flaunt their SUVs and luxury cars and terrorise people on the way. They should better to walk to Joggers Park or take an auto or taxi. It is hypocritical to have a walking paradise for the rich who increase the misery of pedestrians on the road.

The Times of India in its editorial page on February 18 carried a photograph of a large number of cars on a ground. Far from saying that these should be discouraged, the article suggests that there is need to buy more cars, not to reduce their consumption.

Our politicians and bureaucrats, who have brought us to this sorry pass in urban transport, would do well to read, to begin with, the latest publication of the Centre for Science and Environment. The 262-page publication Good News Bad News - Clearing the Air in Indian Cities covers various topics including public transport, walking and cycling, autos and taxies, parking and fiscal measures.

Sunita Narain says in her preface that India still has the opportunity and time to reinvent the mobility systems. Unlike in the West, only a few people use cars in India but we are catering to these few who dominate our roads. We need to provide facilities for the vast majority which remains neglected.

(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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