India that aspires to be an economic superpower is visibly in need of a transport policy that is in tune with the times. The constitution of a high level Transport Policy Development Committee, headed by the former deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Rakesh Mohan, reflects this. The last time a comprehensive view of transport was taken at the national level was in 1980 when the B.D. Pande committee submitted its report. Much has happened since then. India's economic transformation from a near-closed economy to a fast liberaliser led to a significant stepping up of economic activity, particularly by the private sector, and resulted in higher individual spending capacity. While the former meant increased flow of goods and services, calling for better freight facilities, the latter translated into both higher purchasing power for personal transportation modes and higher effective demand for better public transport. Liberalisation has also spawned its own huge inequities. A fresh policy has to factor in the harsh reality that the overwhelming majority, in the region of 800 million Indians, live in poverty. This calls for a more active state role as a provider of subsidised transport and as an effective regulator, particularly since the trend is to move towards a system that facilitates private players.
The terms of reference of the Rakesh Mohan committee are wide: they range from “assessing the transport requirements for the next two decades” to “assessing the investment requirements” of the sector. Although there are several issues that jostle for attention, there is an urgent need to develop a comprehensive policy for road transport as this mode carries 87 per cent of India's passengers, moves 60 per cent of its freight, and is in serious disarray. Efficient inter-State, intra-city, and rural transport systems will reduce losses, improve connectivity, and open up more economic opportunities. The most shocking lapse of state policy is the decline of public transport. As a Parliamentary Standing Committee rightly pointed out, the decline of buses in the total fleet of vehicles from 11 per cent in 1951 to a paltry 1.1 per cent in 2004 has meant an increase in personalised transport. This leads to avoidable economic losses due to higher fuel expenditure, apart from widening inequalities. The retrogressive trend needs urgent reversal. A policy that accords primacy of space to an affordable, efficient, and integrated public transport system will be key to fixing India's transport troubles.