The launch of Tata’s small car Nano has started a discussion over utility of the small car and it’s impact on the flow of traffic in larger cities, some of which are already facing serious difficulties in managing the same. The discussions are centered around the issue as to whether improvement in the public transport system can be a better option for attending to the transportation needs of the common man.
A debate of this nature can be addressed by appreciating the fact that in India the public transport which for years remained in domain of government control does not have a very encouraging presence . Under the compulsion of maintaining a low tariff structure and also maintaining it’s presence in unprofitable areas a number of states have public transport corporations which are not able to provide quality of service which can be considered to be good enough and several state transport corporations are huge drain on resources of the respective governments.
A look at the evolution of public transport system in Delhi which was a centrally administered territory and is now comparatively efficiently managed city state can give an indication of the difficulties involved . The Govt has for years struggled to make the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) (and it’s predecessor entities) an economically viable public sector unit but found the challenge difficult . It has constantly experimented with various innovative measures to make the commuting comfortable for city dwellers. About 15 years back in one stroke more than 200 private operator controlled redline buses were introduced with the hope of improving the availability of buses on all major routes . The traffic scenario was expected to be metamorphosed in a short while .
However with passage of time the goal appeared to be elusive . Soon questions came to be raised about the intake capacity of roads for additional buses and about the effectiveness of traffic police and transport authorities in controlling such large number of private operators. The bus drivers very soon earned reputation of devils on roads. The number of road accidents became such a regular phenomenon that accident figures were reflected in city newspapers along with weather report every day. At a stage the things got so bad that the colour of these buses had to be changed to blue in order to escape the comparison to the colour of blood. Off course this was only a cosmetic change in true sense of the term and situation could not have changed unless there was a firm control of authorities over the bus operators. With passage of time these buses being operated with poor maintenance became old and difficult to operate in the congested traffic. In an attempt to cut prices operators engage drivers who are under prosecution in other states. Majority of migrant drivers are rootless mercenaries who cannot be expected to have a healthy mind and body. The staff engaged as conductors are suspected to be in league with pickpockets and eve teasers. The common man continues to suffer. The Govt is under extreme pressure to cancel the operation of all the private operators.
In between the city has also continuously invested heavily in construction of flyovers and widening of roads. Other progressive measures like point to point taxi service, a higher tariff for high quality buses and having green corridor on ring road have also been tried with marginal benefits. Scenario appears to improve only slightly for a short time . The recent changes in demographic profile due to decongesting of the central commercial hubs in the city after court orders pertaining to shifting of industries and non conforming commercial establishments had similar short lived effect. Even today a 14 km drive from South Delhi to Airport may take an hour to complete during peak hour.
The Delhi Metro has opened some hope for future. But the project was also in pipeline for a long time due to the unprofessional approach of the policy makers. For years the decision makers continued to make foreign trips for evaluation of options. (It is only our good luck that a decision was taken ultimately). The Delhi Metro Project has also not been universally accepted. There are a number of critics objecting to the project due to high costs , the inconvenience to the public at the construction stage and the possible risk for the buildings due to vibration effects underneath . Some have even questioned the ethics of the project , labeling it as a sort of conspiracy to push the poor underground !
The objective of narrating the above experience is to underline the fact that the need for improvements in public transport system has been appreciated by the governments from earlier stages of evolution of metro cities but for various constraints the public transport system is yet to reach the desired level of consumer satisfaction. The moral of the story is that Improvement of public transport system depends on multiplicity of factors which include the capability of the authorities to provide good governance and of the political leadership in planning and controlling the growth of urban areas with a firm hand and foresight. These goals, given the constraints of a democratic set up may be achievable over a substantial period of time only.
In the meanwhile the changes in pattern of economic activities and consequent growth of middle class has increased the requirement of an affordable transport for them. Several small towns have tried to overcome this need by depending on three wheelers, with various seating capacities , in rural areas jeeps packed with 10 to 12 “sawaris” ( including females ) are the only means of transport which is available for going to hospital or industrial unit outside city limits or reaching the workplace which may be a rural bank or dispensary or tehsil level govt. office . Throughout the year in sun and rain millions of Indians ungrudgingly subject themselves to this torture twice a day. Availability of a cheap transport at their disposal would be beneficial to this category of commuters without causing major traffic bottlenecks.
In the larger or smaller cities a cheap car with latest technology may be expected to replace unsafe three wheelers as well as old rickety fiats and ambassadors which continue to be on road since owners do not have a replacement option within their reach. Against the fear of all motorcycle born youths graduating to small car, it needs to be understood that bike riders are a different class , a good number of them may not like to compromise their macho image by giving up the mean machine in favour of riding a small car. Those having slightly better income levels may not like to be seen driving around in the cheapest car, when a regular car can be had for a few dollars more.
And lastly it needs to be kept in mind that the car costing Rs. 1Lakh may in fact be effectively priced in market at around Rs.1.25 Lakhs .The buyer should also have the capacity to bear the cost of fuel along with the loan installment of around Rs. 2000/- per month which may not be an affordable option for too many people in the lower middle class . So let us keep our fingers crossed and wish good luck to small car.