A better deal for bus commuters

In 2014-15, India added nearly 20 million vehicles, mainly two-wheelers, but also two million cars, vans and so on to the existing 172 million registered motor vehicles. Several million more have been added since, as public transport remains inadequate. Personal transport has now reached saturation limit in the cities, resulting in gridlock, rising air pollution, lost productivity and ill-health. The Union Budget for 2016-17 has made a timely intervention at such an inflection point, with the move to expand the public transport system. The Motor Vehicles Act is to be amended to open up the passenger segment, and more entrepreneurs will be able to operate bus services. It will be up to the States, though, to accept the new liberalised regulatory system. Any measure to modernise India’s public transport and help the commuter should be welcomed. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley is on target when he talks of greater investment, employment and multiplier effects for the economy stemming from such a move. The law enabling State road transport undertakings dates back to 1950, and many States have failed to progressively augment their operations after opting for full or partial nationalisation, especially in the cities. Private operators, on the other hand, have rapidly increased their share of the total number of buses. The Budget proposal to open up the sector has the potential to reverse the effects of the neglect and obsolescence.

Regulation is often seen as the obstacle that has affected the growth of bus transport. Yet, a scheme of the kind that the Budget proposes cannot run without a sound regulatory framework, if the goal is to remove erstwhile monopolies and introduce greater competition even in those States where private provision in urban and inter-city services already exists. Optimally, a system should lay down standards, identify areas of operation, fix prices and enable participation by entrepreneurs. As the National Transport Development Policy Committee 2013 said in its report, there is a need for a strategy panel at the national and State levels. This is necessary to take a comprehensive view of rail, road, waterway and non-motorised modes. On the question of encouraging private sector participation in bus services, the experience of London is worth studying: routes are tendered as per schedules, fares are fixed by the city government, and buses are run by franchisee operators who are paid according to mileage. What stands out in this model is the use of intelligent transport systems — of the kind the new taxi companies in India use — to determine whether the contractor is adhering to schedules, and to analyse demand-supply patterns. For passengers, they provide efficient real-time service information. India’s bus transport system lacks the wherewithal to make such studies using massive amounts of data as it is technologically outdated. Buses are also unpopular because they are not ergonomically designed as per the national bus code. A renaissance in bus services is possible, but not without modern design standards and service-level benchmarking that are ensured through strict enforcement.