Now that the Centre has said it will raise the price of diesel by about half a rupee per litre every month, until losses are wiped out, the small advantage that MTC has in tanking up at retail pumps is slowly evaporating. This is bad news for the harried Chennai commuter. There will inevitably be a shrinking of service.
The cost of commuting in the city has been rising steadily, and the price of fuel is unlikely to be revised to the advantage of the commuter simply because demand from a growing vehicle population is equally on the rise. This is the kind of situation to which governments and regulatory agencies must respond proactively. They should review existing arrangements, and introduce new options that lead to greater, affordable mobility, and new jobs.
Helping people walk and use bicycles remains the least expensive intervention possible. Strangely, the Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (CUMTA) speaks little about these matters. It is considering a proposal to open a portal providing information on commuting options in Chennai, the Metro Rail managing director, K. Rajaraman, said recently. Perhaps there is more happening at CUMTA and it is not forthcoming with the details. But more likely, not.
Transport information is, of course, essential to make a city friendly to resident and visitors alike, but you cannot do much with information about a weak system. It would have been much better for CUMTA to do a survey of the actual demand for buses, mini-buses, autorickshaws, and urban rail connectivity in different localities, including the expanding suburbs in the south and west.
At the moment, there is no accurate assessment of the transport demand, although property expansion is happening. Moreover, we would be constraining the Rs. 14,600-crore Metro Rail system with a limited reach and scale over the coming decades, if there is no growth plan for 2030 and beyond. Even for the first phase, we do not yet have clarity from CUMTA on what systems will help citizens get to the stations, without having to shell out arbitrary sums for autorickshaws.
The Motor Vehicles Act has provisions that empower the Tamil Nadu State Transport Authority to decide on questions relating to mini-bus routes and operation of stage carriages. It is for the Authority to decide on routes of mini-bus operators based on government guidelines, to connect any habitation with more than 100 families to the nearest bus stand. CUMTA should actually work to expand the ambit of the law, or use its own regulatory powers to introduce mini-bus services to rail and Metro stations from day one.
On the contrary, the expansion of even the main MTC bus service in Chennai has suffered in recent years. The number of new buses added by MTC during 2011-12 is a poor 183, the lowest number in five years. In 2007-08, it was 1,139, and in the two subsequent years, more than 700 each, according to the operator’s website.
This contraction sits uncomfortably with the massive amounts that the government is ready to spend towards new road building that largely subsidises private automobile owners. The latest mini-bus plan of 100 vehicles is practically nothing more than a pilot scheme, one that will, in effect, preserve monopolies of loosely-regulated autorickshaws and mini-vans. It is time the CUMTA felt the public pulse.