The state of our nation

Published: Thursday 15 May 2003


-- How is India responding to the crisis? In March 2003, the finance minister of Delhi, delivering his budget speech, promised more money so that the capital could become, as its chief minister has put it, "the flyover city of Asia". Think more road; give vehicles more space: this grand, now globally debunked, style of mobility management is precisely the mantra planners and politicians in India swear by. This in a nation where urbanisation and its resultant heartburns - congestion and pollution - are phenomenal.

More, not merrier
Between 1951 and 2000, while the total urban population in India increased just 4.6 times, the number of vehicles bounded up 158 times. According to the planning commission, transport demand in the country has grown at 1.2 times the gross domestic product growth rate. And metropolitan cities, with just about 11 per cent of the total population, have 32 per cent of the country's vehicles.Most of this increase is in the form of two-wheelers. According to a May 2000 article in the Indian Journal of Transport Managementin 1988 one in every 16 families in Bangalore owned a car and one in four had a two-wheeler. By 1998while there was a car per 10 familiesalmost every family owned a two-wheeler. Two-wheelers today form about 64 per cent of the fleet in Delhi and about 73 per cent in Chennai. However, in such cities, a shift towards cars is apparent. In Delhi, for instance, transport department statistics show 164 cars are registered every day, compared to 117 two-wheelers.

With the increase in number of vehicles, the rate of travel in urban centres is also shooting up. In Delhi, the average number of trips per person per day has increased from 0.49 in 1969 to 1.00 in 2001, says a household travel survey by Operations Research Group. There is also a rise in average distance traveled due to the physical expansion of the city.

Despite Indian cities having lower vehicle ownership rates than cities in developed countries, the problem of congestion is far worse here. In Kolkata, says Sudarsanam Padam, former director, Central Institute of Road Transport, Pune, the average speed during peak hours in the central business district (cbd) area is as low as 7 km/hr. Bangalore currently has average speeds of about 13-15 km/hr in its cbdbut this is expected to go down to 3-8 kms/hr in the next 15 years, says M N Reddi, the city's Additional Commissioner of Police (Traffic). According to Padam, congestion on Indian roads means a loss of Rs 300crore every year.

Public means pallid
An efficient and adequate public transport network is obviously a dire need. But when available rail and bus mass transport facilities provide only 37 million trips against a demand of 80 million trips per day by no means can such a system be called adequate or efficient. In fact, there has been a decline in the percentage share of buses from 11.1 per cent in 1951 to 1.3 per cent in 1997 for the whole country.

Dedicated city bus services are known to operate in only 17 cities and rail transit exists only in three out of 35 cities with populations in excess of a million. Even where they operate the bus service is grossly inadequate. While the bus fleet in Chennai Metropolitan Area increased just about three times between 1972-73 and 1996-97 passengers increased more than four times in the same period. In comparison between 1981 and 1997 the number of passenger cars went up by more than four times and two-wheelers by 11 times.

The failure to develop a reliable bus system has spawned various explanations: ancient crumbling vehicles; lack of skills or capacities of state transport authorities; a philosophy of loss-making and political pressure. Also, buses in India use the standard truck engine and chassis and so are not specifically designed for urban conditions.

Going urban with a vengeance
The trend in India is demonstrably to move into metropolitan cities, especially from smaller urban centres


Percentage of urban population living in cities with

1 lakh and above people     Up to 1 lakh people
1901     22.9   77.1
1991    65.5   34.5
Source: Sudesh Nangia et al: ‘Road transport network and social interface in India’, B C Vaidya, Geography of Transport Development in India, Concept Publishing Company, New Delhi, 2003
India needs buses that are more energy efficient and less polluting, with lower cruising speeds, higher acceleration rates and lower payloads. Buses provide mobility to large numbers (see box: Any 'ayes' for public transport?). In a 1998 report for the (then) Union ministry of urban development and employment (now Union ministry of urban development and poverty alleviation)rites - a government enterprise of engineers, consultants and project managers - says: "The policy for various cities with regard to public transport will be that the cities with population up to one million would be fully dependent upon buses." A 2002 World Bank report concurs: "Priority should be given to strengthen and optimise bus services and every effort should be made to divert traffic from personalised modes to the public transport system." Cars, jeeps and taxis account for about 22 per cent of total vehicles and only about 10 per cent of the tax revenue, while autorickshaws account for 10.9 per cent of total vehicles and a disproportionately low 2.3 per cent of tax collections.

ntprc believes the road taxation structure in India should reflect factors such as vehicle price and capacity, its impact on traffic congestion and environment and damage to roads. Since older vehicles pollute more, consume more energy and are less roadworthy, the government should set statutory age limits for all types of vehicles used intensively. A road tax surcharge should be imposed on these vehicles to discourage their use and fiscal incentives should be given for their early replacement.

No space for roads
Roadspace in most south Asian cities are abysmal
Roadspace as % of city area      
Kolkata    6.4
Sanghai    7.4
Bangkok    11.4
Seoul    20.0
So Paolo   21.0
New York   22.0
London    23.0
Tokyo    24.0
Source: E A Vasconcellos, Urban Transport, Environment and Equity — the Case for Developing Countries, Earthscam Publications Ltd, London, 2001

Institutional logjam
Indian cities are perfect examples of how not to have an integrated institutional mechanism to manage transport. The responsibility of managing transport - policy, planning, investment, operations and maintenance, and management of urban transport-related infrastructure and services - is usually scattered among central state and local authorities. This, according to the World Bank, leads to debilitating institutional weaknesses. It creates a lack of technical capacity to manage urban transport, especially at the local level. Municipalities or states usually have no money to fund urban transport infrastructure to make new investments or put money into maintenance. They are hardly able to pay attention to cost recovery and user charges.

According to ritesthough it is not uncommon in different parts of the world to find several government agencies involved in urban transport the central issue in India is that responsibilities assigned to different agencies are rarely responsive to the cities' demands. Although public agencies are collectively responsible for nearly all aspects of urban transport (including planning)as individual agencies they operate only on the basis of departmental priorities and procedures rather than the city's needs.

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