Why isn't the government doing its bit to help visitors and tourists and make transit easy for them?

Arriving in an unfamiliar city with no idea of its street ethos can be a recipe for disaster. Ask the three students from Kolkata who came to Chennai to make contact with their distance education institution, the University of Madras. Two of them were robbed of their luggage and money by an autorickshaw driver who offered them a ride from Chennai Central.

There are many such stories about the big city, of people arriving at its main termini — Central, Egmore or CMBT — only to be greeted by a system that offers little information and even less support. If Chennai wants to showcase a visitor-friendly culture, it should have a prominent, well-equipped tourist reception centre at key entry points offering advice in major Indian languages (think touchscreen displays, maps, videos and personal advice). Even if there is one tucked away somewhere, the young visitors who lost their school and degree certificates could not find or use it.

The autorickshaw driver who made off with the luggage of the students represents what could be called a major group of defectors. As opposed to co-operation (in the economic sense) which produces win-win outcomes, these foolish, short-sighted individuals create massive losses for the city's overall economy by ruining its reputation globally. Certainly, the majority of autorickshaws pose no such threat. Also, there is the small group of “tourist-friendly autos”. These drivers do not get hostile but ask for arbitrary fares all the same. In general, an autorickshaw ride in the city can be a costly affair.

It is an irony that the youth who were robbed had a masters degree in geography. Did they consult a map of the city before arriving, to find their co-ordinates? Whether it is Google Maps or Open Street Maps, it is possible to get a mental picture of where one is going, the distance involved and landmarks. Google Transit goes a step further, and provides actual travel options. A community initiative, India Bus Routes Mapping Project (http://busroutes.in/chennai/) has a database of bus routes and a helpful map.

In recent times, they report a 200 per cent rise in traffic, indicating that such services are narrowing the information asymmetry to some degree.

Why isn't the government of Tamil Nadu, in partnership with the Railways, doing its bit to help visitors and make transit easy for them? Would it not help, for example, to screen a welcome video on the giant display screens at Chennai Central, CMBT, and elsewhere? Many first-time visitors to the city have no idea of what to expect as they exit the railway station. The video could tell them, for example, that there are buses right inside the Central Station going towards High Court, Thiruvanmiyur and so on, and a suburban rail network going west just a few platforms away, and two rail networks to the south within 100 metres and other such options.

The story of the Kolkata students confirms something Chennaiites have always suspected — the costly CCTV cameras at many city junctions are mere duds, paid for by the taxpayer. No footage of the autorickshaw driver was available even near the VVIP stretch of Anna Square Police Station. The police rigorously check vehicle documents of two-wheelers at several places in the city everyday. How about inspecting the papers of autorickshaws inside Chennai Central and elsewhere? After the robbery, the police could have at least sent a wireless message to launch a massive check and help the students get their certificates back.

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