The promise of 10,000 buses joining the fleet in many cities and towns with Union budgetary support under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) comes as a boost to public transport, although it may only incrementally add to the fast-growing demand for mobility in congested urban centres.
In his budget speech, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram said 14,000 buses sanctioned during 2009-12 had made a big contribution to urban transport.
An allocation of Rs.14,873 crore has been made for the JNNURM this year, of which a ‘significant portion’ will go towards funding of new buses.
A second round of JNNURM funding for buses was sought recently by the commercial vehicles industry as it saw declining sales during April — December 2012 compared with the same period the previous year.
For the commuter, the rising fuel price has put pressure on the monthly transport budget, but a shift to public transport has not been easy because of the failure of the cities to expand their bus networks.
The challenge before the Centre now is to persuade the state agencies operating transport services to purchase only buses meeting the technical specifications of the Automotive Industry Standards Code of Practice for Bus Body Design (AIS 052) and the Ministry of Urban Development’s own standards for JNNURM funding eligibility published recently in final draft form on its website.
These include the key feature of low-floor height that makes it easy to board and alight for people with disabilities, children, and the elderly, and which in turn helps all commuters.
Currently, standard buses have a floor height of 1,100 mm — which is the steep height of a lorry floor — while the Ministry of Urban Development has specified that all cities with population of more than one million should go in for buses with a much more passenger-friendly floor height of 650 mm or 400 mm, and those with less than one million population, 900 mm.
In 2008, just as the grant funding was to be rolled out, the Society of Indian Automotive Manufacturers (SIAM) pleaded with the Ministry of Urban Development for a dilution of the floor height standard, on the ground that it was not mentioned in the Bus Code.
Purchaser discretion was thus made possible, and it largely defeated the JNNURM goal of making the buses universally accessible.
Low investment in commercial passenger vehicles is reflected in the 0.2 per cent growth achieved in this category by the automotive sector in the eight-months ending December 2012, compared with the previous year. SIAM scaled down its growth forecast for the commercial vehicle sector from between 3 and 5 five per cent, to between zero and 2 per cent for the current year.