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Devjyot Ghoshal: The urban transport problem

It's not personal transport but public transport that will run the subcontinent's burgeoning cities. And that is a big, fat mess!

Devjyot Ghoshal 

Business Standard’s front page story yesterday on how Nissan wants to build a small car specifically for India, in India, from scratch, is yet more evidence of the subcontinent’s dramatic rise in the global automotive business.

Everyone who is anyone in the business of making mass market cars, particularly in the lower half of the pyramid, has parked in India, with about $6.4 billion of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the sector between April 2000 and January 2012, according to government data. That’s about 4 per cent of the total FDI inflows that have come into the country during this period.

The result is that India’s car market is among the most vibrant in the world today. It is the world's second largest manufacturer of two-wheelers, fifth largest manufacturer of commercial vehicles and, the government claims, the largest manufacturer of tractors. It is also the fourth largest passenger car market in Asia and home to the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world.

But that’s exactly where the problem lies: automobile-obsessed India — from consumers, industry to policy makers — has forgotten that this country will not be able to move, either long enough or too conveniently, on four wheels or even two.

With India’s urban population having grown from about 280 million to 370 million between 2001 and 2011, according to the Census of India 2011, reflecting an increase in urbanisation from 27.81 per cent in 2001 to 31.16 per cent in 2011, it’s not personal transport but public transport that will run the subcontinent’s burgeoning cities. And that, if you haven’t experienced it yourself, is a big, fat mess!

The is India’ new big idea — and great hope. Last month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, at the foundation laying ceremony of the Kochi Metro, revealed the government’s decision to work on projects in 19 cities with a population of more than 2 million people. Of these, he added, “detailed project reports” for 12 cities have already been completed.

But what about India’s existing Metro systems? The Kolkata Metro, the country’s oldest, is in shambles, despite being a reasonable well-planned network that the city relies. Much of that is because of chronic neglect, structural flaws and, curiously, because it is part of the Indian railways. [Read detailed story here from 2010]

In stark contrast, the Delhi Metro, by its own parameters, has been a stellar success. Yet, whether it has actually led to the de-congestion of the city’s street and reduced stress on its overall public transport infrastructure remains an unanswered question. There’s more. In spite of thousands of crores having been spent on India’s flagship public transport network, you still can’t take a Metro to either of Delhi’s two airports.

After a controversial shutdown, when the Delhi Airport Metro Express line will open is still unclear. In fact, a ride to most airports in this country must be in a private car or a cab.

Down south, Bangalore’s Metro, as a photographer friend described it, is a “joy ride”, currently connecting only pockets of the sprawling metropolis and leaving large swathes out of its reach, even when it eventually expands as per existing plans. So what works better? There’s no right answer, but here’s a thought-provoking slideshow on whether an expanded and improved bus network in Bangalore would deliver better results.

And it’s probably too early to even attempt an analysis of the Metro projects that are currently under construction in 7 Indian cities, which will cover a network of length 476 km at a cost of more than Rs 1.15 lakh crore.

For the rest of India, the action is on the road.

Road to neglect
But that’s not to say that India’s road-based public transport network is working properly either.

Start with the finances of India’s 54 state road transport undertakings — comprising of 24 state road transport corporations, 12 companies, eight government departmental undertakings and 10 municipal undertakings — that together own more than 1,47,000 buses. For the last seven years, according to data with the Central Institute of Road Transport, these undertakings have been making significant losses, which are only growing.

Losses at state road transport undertakings
Year Loss (Rs crore)
 2004-05  1,887
 2005-06  2,660
 2006-07  2,150
 2007-08  2,062
 2008-09  3,469
 2009-10  4,763
 2010-11  5,26

Source: Central Institute of Road Transport)
*provisional data

Also, on display at any street-crossing of almost all of India’s metropolitan cities are a few specimens of the country’s often recalcitrant fleet of taxis and auto rickshaws. With the possible exception of Mumbai, using either of these in every other major Indian city is as good as inviting abuse. But taking inflation, both fuel and otherwise, into account, fares are undeniably ancient —and political pressure ensures it stays that way. Ask any cabbie in Kolkata.
In the end, then, the overall impact: navigating Indian cities without personal transport is a nightmare, and the smaller the city, the worse it gets. But India has only about 95 million cars, jeeps and motorcycles taken together, for a population of over a billion. Do the math.

First Published: Tue, October 09 2012. 11:40 IST