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People like us


All over the country, people representing diverse, and even opposing, viewpoints, fight a battle every day over many fronts. In the meantime, the rest of us, over whom these skirmishes take place, go our own way, unconcerned and unaware, having given up on the possibility of change.

One of the issues ... cities that are clogged because their growth wasn't planned.

"THE Emerging Traffic Scenario" was the title of the seminar held a few days ago in Mumbai. The organisers were surprise, surprise the traffic police department. The invitees consisted largely of non government organisations interested in transport policy, the police top brass and representatives of government infrastructural bodies and the municipal corporation. The three speakers were a senior police officer with a PhD in Traffic Management, a leading environmentalist and me. A volatile gathering on the face of it; one in which you would expect sparks to fly.They did.

But they didn't fly, as I expected, within the auditorium and amongst the participants so that there would be many singed bodies writhing on the floor. The sparks, growing into great balls of fire, went flying out of doors directed at some distant (and unseen) enemies. That's because the people in the seminar, seemingly so much at odds with each other, ostensibly representing such diverse and even opposing viewpoints, had gathered together to form an unlikely coaliation.

What did they look like? These people out there who were our common enemies? They looked like us, exactly like us. It was PLUS versus PLUS, People Like Us against People Like Us.

Although what was being discussed may have been the traffic scenario in Mumbai, the issues are the same in all Indian cities: as small towns become big towns, big towns becomes cities and cities becomes megapolises, they all get clogged, clogged with people and vehicles because these places have grown when their growth wasn't planned.

The authorities try and combat this in the only way they know: to throw money at the problem. Since that money is never enough because even the richest city hasn't all the money it needs, the authorities have to prioritise their spending.

In Mumbai, that priority was to build 55 flyovers and resurface roads with concrete.

The combination has certainly speeded up travel, but it has done so for vehicular traffic, which means cars and taxis.

Yet the city's traffic utilisation pattern is that 88 per cent use public transport, seven per cent use taxis and auto-rickshaws and the remaining five per cent use private motor cars. These figures may vary from city to city, but the basic outline will be the same: a vast majority of commuters use public transport.

Yet how much of the money spent on this sector, is allotted to public transportation? A pittance. Mumbai's 55 flyovers don't help the suburban rail system which carries five million people in what the railway calls supercrush capacity. They could have helped the bus service which carries even more people, because buses don't use flyovers since you can't have bus stops on them. In other words, the flyovers are only for 12 per cent of the commuting traffic which either has cars or hires taxis and auto-rickshaws, i.e. the more affluent part of the population. In the other words, People Like Us.

This PLUS group consists of the political leadership which decides policy and the senior bureaucracy which is responsible for drawing up plans to implement those policies. They live comfortably in government owned housing, travel comfortably in government owned cars and are driven a short commute away to government offices.You will find the city's best roads on these stretches so that even that short commute becomes painlessly quick.

Occasionally, a new railway minister decides to see for himself. With much fanfare, and amidst much popping of flash bulbs, he does a commuter journey by suburban train. But that journey is never in the rush hour and it's always in a sanitised compartment. Having thus seen for himself that commuting isn't all that bad, he goes along with plans to spend money on flyovers and the like, money which will make life a little bit easier for People Like Us.

But what about the People Like Us who were in the seminar auditorium that day?

The cops, being Top Cops, had all travelled in their official cars with their beacons on top, the NGOs, being well-off ladies living in the very poshest parts of town had their chauffers waiting at the very poshest of wheels. The speakers were in the same boat (in this case, cars) too.

But in spite of their affluence, or their senior positions, these were people who had learnt to look beyond their own comforts and outside of their own cocooned worlds and having seen the stark reality knew that they had to do something about it. The police had one added incentive for venting their steam: they were, perforce, the implementers of the absurd policies and planning of the other PLUS group, and were simply fed up of carrying the can for someone else's mistakes.

All over the country this PLUS versus PLUS battle is being fought every day over many fronts, and it will continue to be fought over and over again. In the meantime, the great wide public, the 88 per cent over whom these skirmishes take place, go their own way, unconcerned and unaware, having long ago given up on the possibility of change.

Anil Dharker is a noted journalist, media critic and writer.

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