What is at stake is a discussion on what it would take to make the public transport system of our cities truly the one that moves people, not vehicles. But who is talking? Who is listening?
To say that public discourse is at its lowest ebb is not saying anything new. All we hear is noise and insult—and it’s getting worse with all sides deciding that the gloves of human decency are off. But what we don’t talk about enough is how this is affecting public policy.
Why this rant? I am really annoyed with the recent developments on the issue of pricing of public transport. Let me explain.
Some months ago, the Union government, specifically the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, agreed to increase the fares of the Delhi Metro—the 296 km rail-based public transport system which is today crucial for commuters in the city. The fare increase came after many years and was justified by the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation—the public sector undertaking that builds and runs the system—to make sure that the agency remained in the black.
But this fare increase led to an ugly (and that is an understatement) war of words. The Delhi chief minister—whose government is part owner of the metro system—swung into action, accusing the Central government of destroying public transport. The Union minister defended the fare increase. Politics took over the media space. The end result of this ugliness was that the battle lines were drawn. The Delhi government decided that the Centre was now anti-metro; it is still sitting on files for clearing the next phase of the project. War at its best. We all lose.
This is where my rant gets to its point. My colleagues at the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) decided to understand the costs of urban commute and public transport. Why? Because we are clear that without a massively augmented public transport system, we cannot get the mobility transition that will take us off our private vehicles and without this we cannot get clean air or livable cities.
They found the following. First, that public transport systems—bus or metro—require viability gap funding (subsidy) to ensure that these systems remain within the reach of people. In the case of the Jaipur metro, for instance, the difference between revenue from fare collection and expenditure is Rs 50 per km; in Lucknow, it is Rs 78 per km and in Kochi, it is Rs 28 per km. The same is the case with buses. The question, my colleagues asked: “What is the government’s policy to pay for this difference, and how sustainable is it?” The fact is we do not have a policy, let alone, even a discussion on this matter.
Second, when it comes to Delhi metro, data shows that it is one of the world’s most unaffordable systems. In Delhi, a commuter spends 14 per cent of his/her daily income on an average to travel by the metro; in Hong Kong it is 2.92 per cent; in Beijing it is 5.3 per cent; even London is a little better at 13.4 per cent. This is also because there is a difference between trip and travel costs—what it would cost you to go from one point to another, and this includes the interchanges, the cost of taking an autorickshaw, taxi or other such modes. It is also a fact that without adequate pedestrian infrastructure, these costs go up. If you can’t walk the roughly 2 km distance to take the metro or to your destination, your journey cost is high, and it becomes cheaper to take a private vehicle, a two-wheeler or even a car.
Third, we explained, the issue is not the metro, but the policy for funding public transport. The fare hike, which led to the ugliness, was because the metro needed to increase its revenues to meet the projected higher costs due to repayment of loans and other fixed costs. We asked if this was the right approach? Should these essential public services be expected to meet costs through fare revenues, or should there be increased subsidy or other revenue sources for them? What would allow for these systems to be scaled up, be affordable, convenient and well-run?
But this was too much for public discourse to digest. The Delhi chief minister read the only line that confirmed his position on the fare hike. He used it to attack the metro, once again. The Union minister has responded. But the fact is there is much more to this mud-slinging. What is at stake is a discussion on what it would take to make the public transport system of our cities truly the one that moves people, not vehicles. But who is talking? Who is listening?
(This article was first published in the 16-30th September issue of Down To Earth).
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