India has nearly 60 cities that have a population of over or approaching a million. Mobility for an average citizen in these urban spaces is emerging as a key challenge. Economic liberalisation has expedited the pace of urbanisation. But given the poor infrastructure and pathetic planning, the urban sprawls tend to be totally unwieldy. Clogged thoroughfares are not unique to Bangalore or Hyderabad alone. Mega structures like flyovers, skywalks and grade separators find quick clearances, whereas footpaths serving the poor pedestrians have low or no priority with the urban planners. Result: the harried common man bears the brunt of the city’s growth.
Urban spaces look even more cluttered than they ever were. Carbon emission levels are turning the cities into gas chambers. Pro-car policies and apathy towards public transport have allowed a small minority of urban elite to encroach upon already constricted space assigned for mobility in these cities. Pedestrian and non-motorised vehicle users sulk.
Infrastructure, a let-down
Cities lose their economic efficiency and suffer from decline in productivity if the infrastructure fails to keep pace with the urban sprawl or even fails to align itself with the income levels and lifestyle of the average people. Going by the annual Mercer Quality of Living Index, even the most livable Indian cities figure below 140 among the 220 world cities. Bangalore, by far the most livable in India, stands at pathetic 141 in the world ranking. New Delhi’s rank is 143. Chennai comes at 150 and Kolkata figures at 151. Nightmarish traffic, high emission levels of noxious fumes and consequent poor health, affordability (or lack of it) of housing, crimes, bad governance are among the major yardsticks that are factored into the reckoning of a city’s living index.
While mounting road fatalities constantly push our cities to the bottom of index of liveable cities, of late the soaring cost of mobility threatens to render them unfriendliest to the labour class. If indeed India has to move up on the urbanisation scale, sustainable mobility must occupy our priorities. One could question as to where lies the malady?
Experts who gathered for the Volvo Nobel Seminar on the ‘Evolving Landscape of Public Transport’ recently (on Monday, October 29) were unanimous that for progress towards a sustainable urban future, policy and planning bodies would have to work in tandem and have to live down the current process where vision gets fragmented and moves in bits and pieces. The country has currently 87 State Road Transport Corporations (or what could be called SRTCs). Except three of them, all are in the red. Why?
Hike in fuel cost has left the fares far behind, making the operations unsustainable. Mandarins in these corporations have to look at the political bosses (the State Government) for pro rata hike in fares. Shining exceptions (the three profitable corporations) are the KSRTC, the BMTC and the Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation.
How could KSRTC and BMTC, besides staying afloat, induct the expensive Volvo buses and also bring buses with toilet and pantry facilities? Says Manjunath Prasad, Managing Director, KSRTC, the fare structures were made directly proportional to the cost of operations and Rs. 200 crore was invested in enhancement of facilities.
But public transport has not been that lucky elsewhere. A people tired of inefficient and undependable public transport have already switched over to private automobiles. A large number of people use private vehicles in cities including Delhi, Bangalore and Hyderabad. Lest the manufacturing index suffer a fall, the policy planners are in no mood to restrain the proliferation of personal two- and four-wheelers. This has introduced a definitive bias in city planning. Says Geetam Tiwari, Professor of Transport Planning at IIT, Delhi, while cars make up only 19 per cent of the vehicles in Delhi, they occupy most of the space on the capital’s roads. “We make transport policy with the financial market index in mind and exclude everyone else in the process,” she adds.
Hierarchy in policy too
V. Sridhar, Deputy Editor, The Hindu (Bangalore), feels that the hierarchical classification of the Indian society gets reflected in the policy making at every level. The mobility needs of the people who live in slums in each of the Indian metropolitan cities do not figure in transport and infrastructure planning. Not only that the transport network excludes them from connectivity, even the civic bodies do not feel their habitations to be made accessible by good roads.
Geetam Tiwari adds: The slums and their inhabitants cannot be wished away simply because they are illegal settlements.
“After all, it is they who fulfil the need for menial labour force and sustain the productivity of the city’s factories, workshops and foundries. But they do not exist when it comes to conceiving policy,” she remarks.
The Metro effect
Pleading for a review of the urban transport policy, Sanjeev Dhamannavar, an activist from Praja, a civic advocacy group of Bangalore, says that ever since the dawn of the Metro era over Delhi, even the average speed of city buses has gone up by five per cent, thanks to the reduction in the number of private cars on the roads.
Swathi Ramanathan sees an apathy towards addressing the people’s woes and topsy-turvy policy planning.
She says the bike share programme is catching the fancy of several city authorities, but this happens without any due thought for bike-tracks on the city roads. “We have spent money on all those ugly things in planning urbanscapes that elude the pedestrians,” she says wryly.
Anti-old and anti-disabled
Gita Sen, Professor of Public Policy at the IIM, Bangalore, laments the disappearance of the buses run by the large public sector units (including the IIM) from the city roads and blames the vanity factor for cars clogging the roads in each of the important cities across India. She wonders if a rustic woman with a headload can afford to cross any thoroughfare anywhere across India today. “Pedestrians are a scared community. Our cities are anti-old people, anti-children and anti-disabled. This is no guarantee to sustain mobility for the common man,” she said, while pleading for subsidising electric cars.
S.K. Lohia, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Urban Development, a key speaker at the seminar, conceded that speed of change in India was faster than the government upgradation of legislation as well as implementation. He says each State was a sui generis (unique in its own way) case and one size does not fit all.
He points out to the success of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in Ahmedabad but lack of similar success in Delhi. China is inducting around 5,000 electric buses into its urban transport and this should merit the attention of policy planners in India too.
Ravi Venkatesan, member of the Board of AB Volvo, points out the huge pressure the personalised vehicles exert on the public space merely for parking during non-functional hours and pleads for a holistic view of urban planning, away from the current fragmented approach.
He says at some level various departments governing the urban space must coalesce to ensure better quality of life.