These days, a ride in an MTC bus is not merely uncomfortable, but actually painful.

Part of the pain comes from the fact that many of the 3,637 buses MTC says it operates do not meet conditions for safe passenger travel, as they were originally engineered to function as lorries, with bus bodies welded on. Seats are so closely packed that a passenger’s knees are in constant danger of impact. If that isn’t bad enough, maintenance of the vehicles is negligible, repairs are a rarity, and a new coat of paint is generally a mask to hide ramshackle innards. Quite simply, the passenger does not matter in the MTC’s scheme of things.  

This is contrary to global practice.  Most countries surveyed by the Brussels-headquartered International Association of Public Transport (UITP) want a majority of residents, particularly the youth, to ride in buses and trains and postpone the purchase of their first car (in India, this could be a two-wheeler). To encourage commuters, transport operators are happy to ask passengers what they want in the public bus system, and even involve them in the design of buses. That’s how a project called the European Bus System of the Future came up.

The answers provided by commuters are interesting. They would like to have sockets to charge gadgets, air-conditioning, wi-fi, and low-floor designs for easy entry and exit.

Is it feasible or even practical to think of such facilities in the Indian context, where the average travel experience is pathetic and governments refuse to fund public transport adequately?

There are two reasons why this is not only possible, but must actually be done. One is the massive subsidy that all taxpayers have been bearing for luxury diesel cars at about Rs. 10 a litre. Almost Rs. 1 lakh crore was forked out by the taxpayer as petroleum subsidies last year, a lot of which went to transport single individuals in air-conditioned diesel cars and SUVs.

Cars have proliferated on the country’s roads, leading to more of the subsidised fuel being burnt. It is the average taxpayer sweating it out in a decrepit bus who pays for this profligacy. and is asked to share the blame for the imbalance in the country’s foreign exchange account.

The second reason is that the entry-level car today is of international design, ergonomic, and has an air-conditioner, stereo system, and, optionally, a charger facility for mobile gadgets. The days of air-conditioners fitted in as ‘extras’ to clunkers by car mechanics, and the rampant theft of car stereos are long gone. If cars can be modernised, with liberal excise and import concessions from the government, then why not buses?

State governments must therefore stop looking at the bus commuter as a nuisance, and give her a better deal. It needs some imagination to achieve this, but more importantly, honesty.

For one, transport policy-makers must stop striking deals with commercial vehicle manufacturers to supply lorry chassis that will serve as buses. Instead, they must be compelled to adopt the National Bus Code. In Chennai, the MTC can also think about innovative tariff charges that such as off-peak fares for its 100 air-conditioned buses, which could be the deluxe fare plus Rs. 5. This will improve their revenue collection.

MTC should be doing all of this for at least one reason: it is a member of the UITP that constantly is championing a better deal for bus commuters.

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