When you spend more on transport than on food, drink and leisure, something is really wrong. What options are the policymakers exercising?

If you are hit by another petrol (and possibly diesel) price hike, how much of a bigger hole would it burn in your pocket? It sounds like a believe-it-or-not story, but the petrol price has gone up from just over Rs. 8 a litre in the late eighties, to figures hovering around Rs. 70. Disposable incomes for the vast majority of people have been under pressure for quite some time now thanks to the steady rise in fuel price. Pensioners and students are hit harder.

The Chennai resident is spending more to commute and has less to spend on food, drink, leisure and so on. It is a double whammy because congestion has grown over the years due to policy failure and is making things worse, burning more of the costly fuel.

Which brings us to the question, what options are the policymakers exercising? Last November, the Tamil Nadu government sharply increased bus fares, citing losses accumulated by the publicly-owned Transport Corporations.

The point about losses is this: MTC could be doing badly because of many factors, including mismanagement. That needs an independent enquiry. But why does a transport service need to turn a profit in the first place, considering that it is a public good that must remain affordable to all ? It is not anymore, for sure, as MTC's falling passenger numbers show. Moreover, if people using cars and other personal vehicles do not have to feel guilty about the huge sums that governments spend on new roads, flyovers and indirect parking subsidy, there is no reason why commuters, who contribute a lot to the local economy, must shoulder blame for badly-run bus corporations.

The real problem is the Tamil Nadu government's transport policy, which is permanently handbraked. A good example is the frozen plan to operate mini-buses in Chennai.

The Tamil Nadu Government and the Southern Railway should in fact have acted in unison to protect commuters, keeping an eye on the mounting fuel bill. The big question is, will they get serious at least now? An emaciated mini-bus proposal has remained locked up for almost two years. It envisaged 200 buses on 100 proposed routes, which effectively means a laughable bus service of one every 30 minutes or so for a city with millions of commuters. Southern Railway has also slumbered on, in spite of rising travel demand. It needs to add more trains and coaches on the suburban and MRTS sectors immediately.

A new connectivity plan would have simple, effective features based on global experience: Every major bus terminus and railway station in Chennai would be a hub (MRTS stations even provide the space for this). Government policy should connect these hubs with spokes or as part of a grid, to residential localities over an operating distance of 5 to 10 km. This will open up a whole new travel choice. MTC data submitted to the Government of India for Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) for special funding show that it operates only three services on seven routes of 0 to 5 km route length, and 68 services on 18 routes 5 to 10 km long. That indicates an unimaginative policy on feeder services. There are, of course, difficult questions surrounding any new plan. Loss of autorickshaw monopolies in some areas, and competition from the new mini buses to both autos and loosely regulated “mini vans” are potential hurdles. The answer to that is procurement of services from the same operators, besides others, but under strict regulation.

Chennai badly needs an agency to procure transport options for the public under a well-regulated and passenger-friendly scheme that sets fares, routes and service quality benchmarks. It should specify the kind of mini-bus that must be operated by the service provider. That will prepare the ground for feeder services for the upcoming Metro rail. The time to start is now, and CUMTA the city transport regulator should act. Without such initiatives, Chennai's quality of life is bound to deteriorate, along with its local economy.

G. Ananthakrishnan is Internet Editor, The Hindu, with a keen interest in sustainability, welfare and ethical living.