The ratio of buses to population is miserably low in the State capital

Why did it take the death of four young students, whose lives were full of hope, for the Tamil Nadu government to wake up to footboard travel in Chennai?

After all, this phenomenon of people hanging on tenuously to a Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) bus is not new. It is something that the corporation’s line inspectors are expected to report on regularly — and ensure that more buses are run to ease crowding. The answer is simple: the ratio of buses to population in the State capital is miserably low, and this broken system has not been repaired.

Two years ago, the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) was reminded in an official report that the city’s bus service was bursting at the seams. In 1981, there were 41 buses per lakh population. The system remained under-funded in subsequent decades in spite of rapid economic growth: the ratio was 41 in 1991, 40 in 2001 and 40 in 2008. In 1971, it was 29. This is what the official Comprehensive Transportation Study for the city states.

Obviously, no one takes these reports seriously. There is something else that is fundamentally wrong. The Tamil Nadu government is dragging its foot on a new law. The Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (CUMTA) Act 2010 provides that CUMTA, made up of many agencies including bus and rail managers, will “promote the cause of public mass passenger transport systems” and “regulate measures for integration of all public mass passenger transport modes and para-transit modes.” It will fix fares, promote research to improve transport and regulate measures to reduce accidents. Importantly, it will also prepare a Comprehensive Transport Plan for the city.

One would imagine that if a government is keen, it would quickly get to work with such a law in place. But this is far from the case. Even the draft rules required to operationalise the Act have not been finalised. In response to a Right to Information Act application, the CMDA has revealed that a CUMTA meeting was held in February 2012, presided over by the transport minister (chairman ex-officio), but on the draft rules, “the Authority resolved to defer the subject for more detailed examination of the draft rules by the Government in the Transport Department.”

We are now approaching 2013, with no signs of progress. We are also informed that officials of CUMTA and “line organisations” will visit “Singapore, Hong Kong etc... to incorporate the best features of their models into the functions of the CUMTA.” It would help to have a deadline for such initiatives, and a public consultation on what the commuter needs. CUMTA seems to have lost sight of the stunting of bus transport growth, which is hurting us here and now. This neglect kills and maims.

The Chennai Comprehensive Transportation Study of 2010 has now been adopted as the Comprehensive Transportation Plan. It states that “Vehicle growth trends reveal that the fleet of buses has seen a very marginal increase over the years.”

It also takes note of “substantial overcrowding” on MTC buses during peak hours, exceeding 100 per bus. The government, it appears, doesn’t think we should be complaining about enforced ‘cattle class’ travel on MTC, often at ‘deluxe’ fares.

Meanwhile, our administrators paint visions of imagined glory. Some want Chennai to be a Singapore. Others long for the polar opposite and want it to be the “Detroit of India.” Perhaps the second group has never heard of the urban decay that swept America’s original motor city, leaving a trail of ghost buildings and decrepit structures behind it.

If Tamil Nadu is serious about orderly urbanisation, it must invest. It has to modernise its bus system, and plan ahead for expansion of the Metro Rail along arteries of housing development to Sriperumbudur, Sholinganallur, Oragadam and so on.

So far, it has been coasting along with big grant funds from the Union ministry of urban development under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission bus scheme. That move brought a large number of buses with doors, better designs and LED boards to Chennai. But bad maintenance has turned most of them rickety.

Now, the ministry has come up with fresh standards for urban bus design that provide for doors – and safety.

MTC should be compelled to order only such standard-compliant buses for the mini-bus scheme and for expansion of its fleet. It must also quickly convert all existing city buses into modern ones with doors. The citizen has a right to travel safely, in comfort.

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