Public or private?

Published : May 20, 2011 00:00 IST

A DELHI TRANSPORT Corporation bus during rush hour. A file picture. - SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

A DELHI TRANSPORT Corporation bus during rush hour. A file picture. - SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

In the private vs public debate, the joint family system may have lessons to offer in terms of subordinating personal interests to those of the larger unit.

IN Delhi, as in some of the other cities in the country, the bus service is run, at least in part, by the public authorities. Until about a couple of years ago, the image of the Delhi bus was one of a decrepit, scarred, noisy vehicle, which more often than not was found stationary on the side of a road; usually it was festooned with leaves from a nearby tree, the generally accepted sign for inexplicable reasons that it was out of action. Inside the buses that moved, getting to sit was an option one rarely got. It was usual to hang on to the overhead rail, if one could get to it, or to the back of a seat; occasionally, one did get to sit.

Today that image has begun to change. There are still some of the old, rickety, scratched buses actually built locally on truck chassis on the roads, but one sees more and more of the low, sleek green or red buses that came in ones and twos before the Commonwealth Games, now seen in large numbers. These buses are easy to get into and out of, and while they can be crowded, one has the option of waiting for the next bus.

And there is, now, the Metro, sleek, air-conditioned, smooth and usually punctual of late, there have been several instances of trains running late for whatever reason.

Private buses still exist, though. These horrors are the remaining Blue Line buses, which have in their time killed, maimed or otherwise injured thousands of people in their frenzied efforts to pack in as many passengers as possible and put in as many trips as they can even if that meant driving at murderously high speeds. They were, and are, dented, scratched, hard to climb into and dangerous to get off, given their steep and often skewed steps. True mongrels of the streets flea-bitten, mange-ridden and aggressive.

Behind the difference between the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) buses and the Blue Line buses are two entirely different policies that, quite literally, drive them. One seeks to provide, like the Metro, a service to citizens, enabling them to move around the city; perhaps, the Metro has an added motivation, that of earning enough to be able to repay the enormous amounts spent on setting up the system. The Blue Line owners seek to earn as much as they can from bus services they see as an investment of money, with as little spent on overheads as possible. Which is why they are being driven off the streets, which is why they are going to court to stay on the streets. It is simply a matter of being able to earn money.

The new airport in Delhi has been set up with exactly the same intentions: to earn as much money as possible, not just to repay the amounts spent on constructing it but to get the owners handsome profits. But consider what they give the travellers who use it thousands and thousands of them both domestic and international: a world-class airport that ranks among the top four in Asia and among the best in the world, toilets that are sparkling clean, clean wide seats in the waiting lounge, spacious passages and corridors up to the departure gates with travelators to speed one onwards to those gates and to bring one to the baggage claim areas on the way in.

Compare that with the mess that is the airport in Chennai. It is being built, or rebuilt, forever from the looks of it. For years now, that airport has been under construction. The pace of rebuilding is not just slow but trance-like. Occasionally, one can see a worker dreamily moving something from one point to another. Meanwhile, passengers, especially those arriving with families, have to trudge down an excessively long passage, usually dirty, with splotches of mud on the shiny new surfaces that no one cares to remove, to emerge at a narrow walkway casually covered from the burning sun or from rain, to a chaotic mess of cars and buses which ensures that your arrival in the usually restful city of Chennai begins with a traumatic experience part physical effort, part exasperation and anger, and part sheer terror.

The Delhi airport has been built in just about three years by a private consortium; the Chennai airport is being rebuilt by the Airports Authority of India (AAI), a public sector organisation. One would logically assume that the motivation behind rebuilding Chennai airport is to provide travellers with better amenities and a less stressful way of starting or ending a journey, especially now that more and more people are travelling by air. That motivation, as in other public sector organisations, is lost in the private ambitions of its officials to get higher posts, higher pay, more amenities, and better perquisites. In fact, they are the ones who would stop work and subject ordinary travellers to frightful ordeals just to get some personal comforts.

How, one wonders, can these two opposed mindsets coexist? There are publicly owned and operated services, such as the bus service and Metro in Delhi, that are modern, practical and provide a service in the true sense of the term, and there are the others such as the AAI, whose messy, disgracefully slow rebuilding of Chennai airport is done without a thought to the ordeal of passengers, passengers who pay for service and do not get anything out of the goodness of the AAI's heart.

Then there are the rapacious, privately owned Blue Line services in Delhi whose private owners are concerned only with what they can make, completely indifferent to the travails of the passengers and to the lives of those they kill while keeping to the schedules that bring in their money.

Two kinds of thinking

Clearly two kinds of thinking work here; or perhaps one should call them ideologies, except that the word has been corrupted by being used in ways it never should have been. In one, private persons form organisations to provide people some kind of service one has talked about transport, but it could just as easily apply to medical services and ensure that, in exchange for money, people get service that is fully worth that money. This sits beside the ideology of taking money for a service and then providing a dreadful parody of the service.

On the other side, there are public authorities who believe taxpayers' money must be used to provide people with services that are truly worthwhile, and there are other public authorities who could not care less just so long as they get their salaries and are able to lobby for better postings and also, in some cases, make some money on the side.

Finally, it is a question of people, and while that is obvious enough, what is surprising is that even in the fractious and composite society such as the one we live in, the notion of a society nears a breaking point, where it shatters into individuals looking out for themselves. It is not the systematic destruction of a collective self-esteem that we often blame the former colonial rulers for; this present generation has grown up many years after the colonial rulers left. One can only assume that it is a consequence to the break-up of something that was once a cornerstone of Indian society in all parts of the country, the joint family.

It had its drawbacks, true enough, and many have been the Western-educated scholars and experts and analysts and policymakers who have denigrated it as being antiquated, repressive and everything else that is not postmodern and futuristic. But it was a unit that held persons together, that conditioned persons to subordinate personal interests to those of the larger unit. The notion of a society then became something tangible and enduring. And in such a situation personal greed and acquisitiveness found place only rarely and usually under extraordinary circumstances.

But we have let that crumble away; we have placed great emphasis on the nuclear family, which is on ourselves, or personal interests. Once that becomes prime, the concept of suddenly subordinating all that to the good of a separate entity called the public is alien, inevitably. If we are able to pay the price, then we deserve what we have now and must confront and live with the AAIs and their ways, with the Blue Line services and, also in some cases, with the benefits Delhi's privately run airport and publicly run bus and Metro services. And we will see society develop in that pear-shaped fashion. We deserve no less, nor any better.

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