Cars, more cars

By Sunita Narain
Published: Wednesday 15 December 2004

I recently visited Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai. The singular impression I have of all these cities, and of others I occasionally visit -- of course the one I live in, Delhi -- is one of noise, pollution, plastic, garbage and filth. But most of all what hits you is cities overrun by vehicles; cars, more cars. Every city is now bumper to bumper. Even Bangalore, the sanctuary city, is a car-mess.

This nightmare has crept upon us, insidiously. Most people living in cities cannot even comprehend, let alone contest, this change. The pace has now swamped us. When my colleague Anil Agarwal made presentations to the Indian parliament in the mid-1980s about India's environmental challenges, he found no reason to speak of urban chaos and its deadly impacts. It was not there to see, then. So, this change is really the story of the last 15 years. In other words, it is an ecological history old enough for us to lament about. But isn't it young enough for us to rectify?

Over the last 15 years, is it only that we have intensified our efforts towards economic growth? Or is it that we have intensified growth without public action? It is fair to ask: if the consequence of this growth is not intentional, then what has government after government been up to? Did they ever exist?

Let's stick to transport. Take any city's data: the increase in number of vehicles far outstrips growth in human population. Chennai, for instance, has seen a 10 per cent growth in people and a staggering 108 per cent growth in on-road private vehicles in the last decade.

I do not think this is accidental. Private vehicle growth has paralleled decline in public transport. Ahmedabad in 1990 had almost 800 buses, or roughly 23 buses per 100,000 people. In the early 1980s, the situation was better: 30 buses per 100,000 people. But by 2003, the city had barely 400 operational buses. The ratio now? Less than 9 buses per 100,000 people. Only Delhi -- because of the Supreme Court order, ironically, that mandated 10,000 buses running on clean fuel -- has substantially increased its fleet.

At this point, many might argue that population growth is inevitable. What can city planners do? Human population growth may be ordained. The growth of private vehicles is certainly not. Remember, the decline in public transport leaves people with no choice but to move towards private vehicles. In all these cities, as public transport has declined, people have moved towards two-wheelers and cars. In the jargon of transport planners, there has occurred a substantial modal shift in transportation in these cities!

I remember reading, many years ago, how the automobile industry of the us had deliberately bought out the railways and the tramways, so that it could decimate its competitors. In India, as usual, the story is simpler. Private interests have gained from the destruction of public service. But they have not had to invest in this destruction. The wound is officially self-inflicted. The last 15 years are about neglect and apathy. And no interest that speaks for the public good any more. Another indication of the total collapse of government.

The change from public to private came, in India, with setting up the public sector company Maruti -- what an irony! -- with the imperative of making the car affordable for all Indians. Maruti, since then, has been joined by a horde of other car-makers, all competing to make the car more sexy and more glamorous. They have done well; indeed, made the car or scooter every Indians' dream-turned-reality. But this "revolution" has come at a deadly cost.

The problem is not that there are sellers of cars. The problem is that there are no sellers of public transport. Worse, even its "owners" have become its enemy. In most cities, bus fleets run not as transportation companies, but as employment services. Ahmedabad, for instance, has 8,000 employees to run its mere 400-odd buses. Its owner, the government, will not sack these employees. And it certainly will not invest in improvements. In fact, what it will do is to argue, vociferously, that it has no money to invest in public transportation. It is, after all, a poor government of a poor country. But this would be more than complete falsehood.

Let me explain. First, every city reluctant to invest in public transport is busy building flyovers to take care of burgeoning traffic. This, when it knows flyovers never solved the problem anywhere. They are like the proverbial Internet, where points of traffic jam shift; even as you invest in more space, cars fill it up. The answer to congestion is not more road space, but less.

But more on misleading "sarkari" economics. Delhi, for instance, according to government documents, is building 42 new structures, which will cost the exchequer nothing less than Rs 500 crore. Now, we know that private vehicles control over 90 per cent of the road space in our cities. Therefore, this is a subsidy for this mode of transport. On the other hand, the same money spent on public transport would have substantially upgraded services for all.

Secondly, and shockingly, private vehicles pay less road tax than public transport vehicles. So, let us be clear that this is a mockery of economics; here, the poor support the rich.

But in case these facts make you believe public transport is not used in our cities, let me correct this. It is true that private vehicles constitute over 90 per cent of all vehicles in our cities. But it is also true that in many cities, public transport, however it may exist, still moves over 50-70 per cent of commuters. In other words, this is not the story of the us, where the car replaced the bus. It is the story of poor cities -- Bangalore, Chennai, Pune -- of a poor country, where the poor have not become rich.

They have only been neglected. Murderously so.

-- Sunita Narain

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