Every ten days in Chennai, the Detroit of India, at least one person dies travelling on the footboard of overcrowded public transport buses. On Monday, the High Court expressed anguish when it learned from the media that four young people were crushed to death by a lorry on the footboard of a Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) bus.
Taking cognizance of the issue suo moto, a division bench of the Court has sought clarification from the state government on overcrowding in buses, safety of passengers and the steps that the government would take to avoid such tragedies.
The observation of the High Court special bench was simple and clear - there are not enough public transport buses in the city and people are forced to travel on the footboard. It also referred to the Motor Vehicles Rules which stipulate that buses should not exceed their sitting and standing capacities.
But the initial government reaction to the incident was looking for cover. Authorities blamed every fringe reason - from footboard travel, lack of doors, indiscipline by drivers, violation of MV rules and fitness certificates - and glossed over the real reason of overcrowding: the city doesn’t have more than 2500-3000 buses on the roads to carry nearly half a million desperate commuters; and the buses are mostly World War II designs, people and disabled unfriendly and badly maintained.
Every single bus in the city is overcrowded and footboard travel, or travel outside the bus, is a dangerous necessity for a large number of people to reach workplaces and homes. Contrary to the general perception, footboard travel is not just daredevilry or youthful revelry, but sheer desperation that force people to take risks. There is simply no other choice.
Good that the Court has intervened, and the questions it asked might lead to some immediate changes in the way things are done, rather than fixing responsibility on the drivers of the bus and the truck, who may have been partly responsible for this particular incident. The court, however, might not be able to supervise things for a longer term and unless there are fundamental shifts, it will be back to the same story once again because the malaise is so deep.
That deep malaise is the neglect of public transport in the midst of a powerful auto-highway lobbies and increasing philosophy of privatisation of public services for efficiency and rationalisation of costs. The number of transport buses are plunging and city roads are in a shambles; but the number of cars and two-wheelers are booming along with sprawling highways that are dear to our politicians. It’s not just exclusive to Tamil Nadu or Chennai, but to the entire country.
As gleaming cars (households owning cars in the state have doubled in ten years), SUVs, and two wheelers (which have more than doubled in a decade) have become integral to the country’s industry and growth indices, the governments appear to have withdrawn from its responsibility of providing efficient and safe transport systems to millions of its common people.
Just as private investment in education and health have led to the systematic withdrawal of governments from these crucial sectors, the personal transport industry has led to the government neglect of public transport. Not surprisingly, compared to 2001, more than 30 per cent of the people in the state have stopped using public transport altogether.
The Chennai incident is a shocker because historically the city’s public transport system and wide roads have been acclaimed and the state was was way down the list in terms of private vehicles ownership. The chief minister Jayalalithaa recently added 675 new buses to the Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) fleet; but they are far from enough.
According to the data presented by the Times of India on Wednesday, the city needs at least 5000 buses for its estimated 48 lakh commuters, but the MTC has only 3611, out of which 1200 are under repair. On top of that, the corporation also has a severe shortage of staff. In the end, there are only half the minimum required number of buses on the road.
The paper also noted that whenever there are shortage of buses on the road, the average revenue is higher. Nothing else explains why cost-efficiency and profits should not be a criterion in public transport or delivery of common public goods.
At the heart of the problem is the complete disconnect of the governments with the needs of the people at a time when they badly need the support of a welfare state. This is something that development economists have been warning the country since the beginning of economic liberalisation and privatisation.
While markets try to dominate our economies, governments should invest more in the social sector. These are the times when people are extremely vulnerable to socio-economic shocks and it’s the State’s role to protect them. The emergence of social protection initiatives in south east Asia after the 1997 financial crisis is a case in point. The richer countries in the region have acknowledged the fact that economic growth doesn’t ensure social protection and hence the State has to intervene.
However, instead of investing more in public sectors such as health, education, transport, food, water, housing and power, our governments are going the other way by slowly withdrawing from these sectors and cutting subsidies.
The public transport sector, including the railways, for instance, should be immune to profit-loss considerations. In an average sized Indian city such as Chennai, at least half a million people depend on public transport every day. It’s the government’s responsibility to ensure that they get it. In all major cities of the world, public transport systems carry millions of commuters without a hitch and private transport is prohibitively expensive.
Unfortunately in India, most state transport corporations and the railways talk of balance-sheets instead of public service. Ironically, instead of improving services, they are obsessed with reducing losses and making profits.
This philosophy comes from institutions such as the World Bank. A 2002 WB report “accused publicly owned and operated systems of being inefficient and highly unprofitable, providing insufficient and low-quality services, and failing to respond to market demands.”(Journal of Public Transportation, Vol. 7, No. 4, 2004)
The WB went on to add that the private buses carried more passengers and made more money and had fewer staff, whereas public buses made losses.
This is exactly what happened in Chennai when fewer buses were on the roads and MTC made profits. Going by this logic, the best way to make money and reduce losses would be to reduce the number of buses. In other words, not running enough buses is a perverse incentive for the government.
It’s amply clear that to be useful and a lot safer, public transport in India should be profit-loss neutral.
The misplaced priorities of the government will ultimately render daily commute dangerous on Indian roads. It has to get its focus right. Take away bulk of the road-space for special bus corridors, tax cars, particularly the big ones and SUVs which take up precious road-space and add capacity, not to mention modernisation of the fleet. As a Chennai public transport blog Straphenger notes, the floor of Chennai buses are 1100 mm tall, forcing commuters to climb at three steps, which makes it dangerous for not only people with disability, but also others.
The governments need to show political will and sincerity in favouring public transport at the cost of private transport. Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) which requires exclusive road-space, and integrated public transport systems are totally unavoidable if our cities are to avoid future catastrophes. With metros being planned in many cities, there cannot be a more opportune moment.
We also need more fairly-priced metros. The Metro man E Sreedharan had suggested a metro for every city with more than two million people. According to him, buses can at best handle 8000 passengers in an hour and cities need more rapid systems.
It’s not a question of either or, but certainly public transport - buses, trains and integrated systems - first. If we don’t do it now, our hearse-looking cars will get bigger and the common citizens will be pushed out of their public space.
This passage from a scholarly article in Journal of Public Transportation (2004) says it all:
“Public transport, in particular, has been completely over-whelmed. Most bus and train services are overcrowded, undependable, slow, inconvenient, uncoordinated, and dangerous. Moreover, the public ownership and operation of most public transport services has greatly reduced productivity and inflated costs. India’s cities desperately need improved and expanded public transport service. Unfortunately, meager government financial assistance and the complete lack of any supportive policies, such as traffic priority for buses, place public transport in an almost impossible situation.”