Follow us on


Elitist recipe for more chaos?

Published : Jul 29, 2005 00:00 IST


An overcrowded bus on the Mysore-Bangalore main road.-G.P. SAMPATH KUMAR

An overcrowded bus on the Mysore-Bangalore main road.-G.P. SAMPATH KUMAR

The new draft Urban Transport Policy has confused priorities, is strong on high-energy, high-density transportation, and weak on ecological sustainability.

One of the painful realities all urban Indians experience daily, in the face of which most of them feel frustrated and helpless, is the degeneration of their quality of life. Brownouts, faltering water supply, poor garbage collection, unreliable emergency services, and chaotic traffic conditions sum up the substance of that reality. Of these, traffic chaos has arguably worsened most rapidly in recent years. Travelling on city roads is becoming increasingly unpleasant, indeed nightmarish, for a majority of people.

In fact, India faces a serious urban transportation crisis marked by traffic congestion, disorder, extremely high pollution including noise, accidents with high fatalities and injuries, and deep inequities of access. Deterioration in urban traffic has probably been much more rapid than that in the availability of, say, power which has certainly not decreased by one-half. Most people in big or small cities would say it now takes twice as long to commute from one place to another, as it did a decade, even five years, ago. This is borne out by micro-level studies. For instance, in Mumbai, motorised traffic slowed down from an average of 38 kilometres per hour in 1962 to 15-20 kmph in 1993, in Delhi from 20-27 kmph in 1997 to 15 kmph in 2002. In Chennai, the average speed was as low as 13 kmph in 2002, and in Kolkata a glacial 7 kmph in the city centre.

Power failures - and the callousness of power generation and distribution agencies - make headlines every other day. But there is little public discussion on the causes of and solutions to the transportation crisis. If one reason for this is the absence/invisibility of a single culprit, another is the consumerist aspirations of our burgeoning middle class which drive its gargantuan appetite for sleek new vehicles (over 100 models to choose from), and its fascination with the speed, gadgets and comforts that come with these.

The top urban transportation stories in our media are about new car models, more flyovers, urban expressways, glittering Metro lines, and the wonders of the monorail or sky train. Thus, the causal connection between growing traffic chaos and India's unprecedented automobile consumption boom and related issues (discussed in this Column, Frontline, October 8, 2004 and June 9, 2000) is blurred, even erased.

However, the document fails to provide an adequate conceptual framework within which to develop solutions in keeping with the public interest. It also makes no attempt to propose how and under what authority the DUTP might be reconciled with the Master Plans being drawn up by a number of cities, and equally importantly, with the government's industrial promotion policy, which identifies automobiles as a cutting-edge industry in India's overall growth. Thus, where the DUTP might want to limit the number of motor vehicles and conserve fossil fuels, many urban plans advocate greater road and parking space for fossil-fuel vehicles and base their transport and housing models on the assumption of unchanged growth and patterns of traffic.


This is similar to, but worse than, the long-standing tension between two aspects of India's pharmaceuticals policy - as an approach to low-cost health care, and an industry-promotion policy in which the second has always prevailed. In practice, it is the DHI that has dictated the automobile policy. It is not clear if and how the DUTP will change that.

The DUTP is flawed on several counts. To start with, it is based on data, including vehicle populations, that is outdated and ends in 1997. Far more recent numbers are available in the public domain. For instance, since 1997, the production of cars has doubled. Sales of cars and multi-utility vehicles, which clocked 5.5 lakhs in 1997, crossed the one-million mark last year. The annual production of two-wheelers has since risen by 89 per cent and total motorised-vehicle output by 84 per cent. This raises doubts about the soundness of some of the DUTP's factual assumptions.

The DUTP suffers from even more substantive defects. First, it fails to note the gross mismatch between the huge increase in traffic, and poor growth of the infrastructure, including road space, traffic junctions, signals and so on, and to relate it to runaway growth of private transport, urban sprawl and chaotic land-use. This has wrought an undesirable shift in the proportion of road-space used by public and private vehicles. Between 1981 and 2002, two-wheeler ownership multiplied by 16 times, and that of cars by seven times. Even the number of goods vehicles rose five-fold. But the bus population only increased four times. Buses now probably account for less than 1 per cent of all vehicles on urban roads.

Second, the DUTP does not pose the issue of equity up-front. It is not among its stated four-pronged "objective". India's horrifying poverty translates in its cities into exclusion of the poor from efficient transportation systems, often even rickety buses. The middle class is increasingly elbowing out the poor from the roads. As pedestrians and bicycle-riders, the poor are at a double disadvantage. They have little access to public transport; and they face grave hazards from pollution and accidents, the incidence of which is much higher than that for users of motorised transport. (In Delhi, 56 per cent of road accident fatalities are accounted for by cyclists and 8 per cent by pedestrians.)

At the same time, there is overwhelming evidence that the bulk of public investment in urban transport, whether on roads (usually expanded at the cost of pavements), flyovers, or parking places and so on, benefits largely the affluent and the middle class. It is imperative to correct this imbalance. The DUTP fails here. It only speaks of "differentially priced services" for "different categories of commuters." Thus, "those who place a premium on price are the poorest sections ... and need to be given affordable prices... [So they need] to be subsidised by other sections ... such as those who employ them, those who benefit from [their non-use of] personal vehicles, etc."

A third flaw is the DUTP's weakness on the issue of non-motorised transport - including walking, bicycles and cycle-rickshaw - despite the promise of a fund to "support the construction of cycle tracks and pedestrian paths in all million-plus cities" with half the costs "financed by the Central Government." The merits of non-motorised transport are simply nonpareil from the point of view of ecological sustainability, health, social cohesion and peer-level interaction among children (walking to school together) and other factors. In the long run, non-motorised transport must receive qualitatively greater importance. Each of our cities must create vehicle-free pedestrian plazas and bicycle tracks.

The DUTP does well to promise that "the construction of 50 km of cycle tracks in all million-plus cities and 100 kms ... in 3-million plus cities would be supported" by the Centre. But one does wish it had set a broad time-frame or standard, such as three to five years for installing cycle-tracks, or announced rewards for cities that do so by, say, 2008.

A fourth DUTP flaw is its pusillanimity as regards discouraging both private vehicle ownership and use, and its pandering to the elite's urge for ostentatious consumption. Thus, it says: "In a developing economy, people have an urge to display their higher income status through the ownership of motor vehicles" - as if "people" were some undifferentiated category, which allows the equation of an avaricious elite with the austere majority.

However, another lame apology follows: "The automobile... sector contributes a substantial amount to the national GDP, also providing employment to ... people. It contributes Rs ... crores in the form of taxes and adds to India's foreign exchange earnings". (The numbers are blank in the official document. But the same argument could be used to perpetuate any hazardous industry, tobacco manufacture or opium farming.)

Singapore provides what many transport planners worldwide consider a worthy model to discourage private vehicle ownership through heavy taxation, quotas and outright bans on the use of half the car population. But the DUTP says such measures "would not only constrain the legitimate urge to demonstrate the income status ... but also adversely impact the earnings and employment potential of this sector. It would ... even be retrograde." It advocates "market mechanisms such as higher fuel taxes, higher parking fees, reduced availability of parking space". But this ignores the growing influence of the automobile lobby and its ability to resist long-overdue increases in high parking fees in many cities.

Fifth, the DUTP offers a confused discussion of choice of vehicles and technologies for public transport. Its please-all approach lands it in a mess. After declaring that two-stroke two-wheelers and diesel cars are excessively polluting, or "take unfair advantage" of the artificially low price of diesel, it is still ambivalent about banning them within a specified period. (Two-stroke two-wheelers would still be allowed in cities with fewer than a million people.) There is no clear rating in the document of the great advantage that electric or hybrid vehicles, including trolley-buses (which draw power from overhead cables), trams and battery-operated feeder buses and so on have over fossil-fuel vehicles as regards pollution, noise or ease of operation.

The discussion comparing rail-based and bus-based transportation is also an instance of the please-all discourse, which lists merits and demerits without delineating clear priorities/choices. For instance, there is an obvious case for using rail corridors, where they are available, to carry high passenger loads between cities and suburbs. But the case for new rail networks, especially in built-up cities, is not convincing. Their costs and benefits must be compared with those of high-capacity diesel buses and electric/hybrid systems - neither of which has been given a fair trial in India.

The DUTP has an unmistakable bias in favour of large-capacity rail-based systems like the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, which can carry 40,000-plus passengers an hour in a direction. That is why it commits the Centre to financing 60 per cent of the costs of projects modelled on this Metro.

The Delhi Metro has indeed become a glamour symbol because it is sleek, neat, clean and exclusive - like a multiplex cinema. But its current tariffs are about double the comparable bus fares. These tariffs are subsidised and will rise as the project's true costs unfold. The Metro will exclude the poor and can never be a mass transport system in the way the Mumbai and Chennai suburban rail-systems are. It is meant to reach economic viability only when its first phase carries some 25 lakh passengers a day. Currently, less than a tenth this number travel on it. It is to be seen how long new curiosity regarding the opening of a new line lasts. But the project's viability seems very dubious.

The reason is simple. The world over, it costs something like $1 to take a Metro trip. Given that the capital and running costs are roughly similar across the globe for such high-energy and high capital-intensive projects, there is little reason to believe that the cost of an average Metro trip will be much less than Rs.25-30. But to be attractive even to the middle class, the Metro must be comparable in cost to (or only a little more expensive than), say, a two-wheeler. Or else, 50 per cent of the population, which owns two-wheelers in cities like Delhi, would not ride it. Yet, it costs less than Re.1 a km to run a two-wheeler.

Delhi Metro has plans to gain "viability" artificially by other measures: leasing out land on both sides of the track for high-rise office blocks. But that will have harmful consequences upon urban development, with concentration of job-locations and so on.

A word of warning comes from Dinesh Mohan of the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, who has reviewed the working of mass transit systems in 10 different cities in the world. He finds that only a couple of Metro systems like those in Tokyo and Hong Kong pay for themselves; they carry, unlike other Metros, a majority of the city's commuters.

The Metro is suitable in high-income societies where there is a large concentration of jobs in a high-rise central business district. In low-income, low-rise Indian cities, with their dispersed/multiple business districts, it is a problem. Metro costs tend to be particularly high where tunnels and tracks have to be laid in already built-up cities - unlike, say, in London, where many were laid a century ago in conjunction with other public projects. There can be no silver bullet for India's transportation crisis. We must try a mix of approaches, with descending priority in the order of their energy and capital intensity and a premium on public affordability. The one thing that we cannot afford is continuing privatisation of transport, coupled with expensive, elitist public projects.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jul 29, 2005.)



Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment