Some might say London can do it, but not our service providers. That's simply untrue because our cars are as good as theirs, so why not our trains and buses?
Unlike the luxurious private motor car, the public bus or train is quite clearly a shared space that involves many compromises.
In the case of Indian bus operators, the compromises can be extreme, often literally painful, and sometimes injurious. That's the experience in Chennai anyway, for many.
Before coming back to Chennai, we can look at a first world example of how things are designed to be at least a tolerable compromise - a more civilised commons. During a recent visit to London, this writer had the opportunity to ride many of its bright red double-decker buses. The list included the newest type of double-decker that is inspired by the beloved Routemaster buses of old.
What was striking about the buses in London is the importance given to ergonomics: that human beings are of a certain average height, that their knees require a reasonable amount of space to fit into the seats, and there needs to be at least basic room of a couple of inches between individuals. The story is not very different on the London Underground system of trains, famous as the 'tube.'
For someone who is used to virtually forcing himself into the seat of a Chennai MTC bus because it does not offer sufficient legroom even for Indian proportions, the London buses appeared luxurious. The new Routemaster, which is delightfully frequent on route 24 between Pimlico and Hamsptead Heath, goes a step further than the rest - it has virtually a small sofa for two people!
There will no doubt be a chorus of protests when such comparisons are made, because Indians are used to such low levels of service and poor design that they feel thankful for whatever the rulers give them. That is, of course, an unhelpful argument, and is also terribly out-of-touch with reality - after all, our cars have become 'international' and the same wheels that run in London are available in Chennai or Mumbai or Delhi or Bangalore. The discrimination in design is only directed at the users of public transport, perhaps with the exception of the air-conditioned services operating in Bangalore, and to a very limited degree, in other places.
One must invoke here the lament of Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen in their new book 'An Uncertain Glory' about India and its contradictions. It is certainly a contradiction of the extreme kind that Indians wantonly build buses for the masses with no room to sit comfortably or even safely. We spend money on public infrastructure that is demonstrably inferior and uncomfortable.
To return to Chennai, though, the MTC's neglect of the city's bus system in the area of safety and comfort borders on the cynical.
Not long ago, this writer travelled in a city bus and was left with his palm of the hand bleeding because a loose handrail pinched and tore the skin off. Another time, the seat in front had been bolted into the frame from behind, with a protruding inch-long nail that stopped short of piercing the knee ligaments. Imagine if there is sudden braking (Vivek Narayan's report on bad brakes on MTC buses is here).
Should there not be a method of complaining and seeking redress for such cussed management of our civic services?
This writer filed a Right to Information Act petition with the Metropolitan Transport Corporation, Pallavan House, PB No. 390, Anna Salai, Chennai 2, seeking to know the identity of the officer to whom complaints on matters relating to injury, loss and so on occurring suffered on MTC buses should be sent.
The MTC Public Information Officer replied that the officer is :
Mr. G. Ganesan, BE, MBA, Deputy Manager (Commercial), MTC (Chennai) Ltd., Pallavan Salai, Chennai 600002. There is a Customer Care Centre that can be contacted at the following phone numbers: 94450 30516 and 93833 37639 and email: email@example.com
But if experience is any indication, the MTC is not going to respond to any routine complaints. Only an RTI petition works.