Most of us are caught in the pincer grip of rising fuel prices and costlier essential articles. The government has announced helpfully that this time, it has spared already expensive petrol, which is the ‘middle class fuel’, and only picked diesel and LPG for price hikes. The problem is, diesel powers not just big, luxury cars, but also our stunted and badly maintained fleet of MTC buses. Chennai buses, incidentally, average 4.39 kilometres to the litre. When fuel costs start mounting for our monopoly bus corporation, commuters feel the heat
Since November last year, city bus rides have become more expensive. Costlier tickets translate into good cash inflows for MTC — officially averaging Rs. 2.89 crore a day. Yet, MTC has been unable to prevent many of its buses from almost falling apart. Passengers are silently paying up for travel by ‘deluxe’ buses that have broken seats, bone-rattling suspensions, doors that don’t close and sometimes, dark, unreadable destination boards. Those problems are likely to get worse, now that the diesel price has gone up steeply. That is the bad news.
The good news is that the ministry of urban development at the Centre, which provided grant funds to the MTC under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission three years ago, is again working on new specifications for buses for another round of JNNURM funding. Remember, it is special funding and bus design conditions that the ministry laid down, that brought a large number of air-conditioned and deluxe buses to Chennai. Without such extra spending, what we usually get is buses that torture knees with a multi step climb, and a floor height that is the same as that of a 1960s lorry.
The average bus commuter is reconciled to shabby treatment, because public transport is looked upon even by policy makers as something meant for unsuccessful people. But the working group of the Planning Commission is more sympathetic. In its report for the Twelfth Plan, it notes there is sheer neglect of the pedestrian, cyclist and public transport user. It points out that hardly any State has a transport professional on its rolls. Chennai is certainly a laggard, and the MTC bus fleet counter is officially stuck at a dismally low 3,497. The government also seems to have dozed off on the plan to introduce mini-buses, never mind that citizens need more and better travel options and road-rail connections today.
The ministry is at work to specify what kind of buses will get funding in the next round of infrastructure augmentation. For one thing, the draft document says an ordinary bus should have a floor that is 400 or 650 mm high, which translates into a lot less strain on our knees. Of course, everything depends on whether corporations such as MTC opt for these buses and keep them in working condition.
Fundamentally, do governments want to give citizens better options? When all political leaders feel suffocated without big, expensive vehicles, why do they offer junk to voters? Why does MTC have a general preference for outmoded designs to transport lakhs of passengers, but occasionally buy better buses when external funding such as a JNNURM plan is available?
How can the Tamil Nadu government decongest Chennai and get more people out of their personal vehicles, if the MTC remains in what is the equivalent of the stone-age for public transport?
(The author is available for an interaction at facebook.com/chennaicentral at 6 p.m. on Monday.)