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Lunch with BS: Dinesh Mohan

One for the road

Kanika Datta  |  New Delhi 

The transport expert on why critics of the controversial BRT corridor have got it all wrong.

Dinesh Mohan"What is this about?" Dinesh Mohan asks after we've briskly placed our orders at Basil & Thyme, the peerless restaurant for European food in one of Delhi's most fashionable shopping complexes. The Volvo Chair Professor Emeritus at IIT, Delhi and one of India's respected transport experts has reason to be mildly suspicious. He's rarely emerged unscathed from encounters with the press ever since his association with the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor, the experiment that was expected to revolutionise public transport in India's congested cities, writes Kanika Datta.

Today, that experiment lies all but abandoned following a welter of public criticism about design and safety. I nervously explain that given the Delhi High Court ordering a feasibility study and allowing cars and auto-rickshaws to ply, on an experimental basis, on part of the 5.8-km BRT for six weeks, I was, er, wondering what he had to say and, er...

Instead of an explosion of wrath, I get a business-like assessment of why his critics have it wrong. "It's nothing to do with design or implementation. The issue is a very ill-informed discussion by people who should know better, actual lies spread by the press and, third, using personalised attacks to prove a point." He tackles each issue methodically.

People, he says, are disputing issues that were "settled more than 100 years ago, including in India". Take the question of why the bus lane is in the middle of the road. "That's been done for the past 100 years; every tramway in every major city – European, Japanese, Australian – is in the middle of the road and with good reason. If you put public transport on the side, that's where taxis stop, people alight from their cars, come out of driveways. So it is bad for safety and for car drivers because they keep getting obstructed every time the bus stops."

He is surprised that newspaper and TV editors who "travel so much, don't even know what they see in parts of the world". Everyone talks about Bogota (the Colombian city that has successfully implemented the BRT concept), he adds, but that's a recent introduction and the only reason it's mentioned is that it uses buses instead of trams.

He also ascribes the criticism to an indifference to global warming. Since this point involved BRT versus metro-rail arguments, I take the opportunity to ask whether he believed, as some did, that the anti-BRT campaign was encouraged by supporters of the Delhi Metro, now the city's showpiece. "You can't prove it," he agrees, "but in most countries there has been a tremendous antipathy from metro suppliers – boring agencies and equipment makers – because investments are huge. If a cheaper alternative becomes available, then what do those multinationals do?"

As far as comparable costs and pollution go, he explains the concept of life-cycle costs. "In India today, we only manage emissions on the basis of what the vehicle does. But model studies in most parts of the world show that any system – transport, housing, garbage collection – that uses a lot of infrastructure in addition to the service consumes more power and, therefore, more resources.

So, he reasons, if you have a transport system that operates underground or is elevated there are huge amounts in investments in tunnels, bridges and so on. Much more cement, concrete, electricity (for air-conditioning, lighting and so on) gets used, all of which is related to life-cycle costs in which "anything that uses more infrastructure comes off worse".

Therefore, since most of energy in India is from coal, the carbon emission and energy consumption per passenger in the metro is higher than a bus. "It's a very expensive proposition — in terms of social costing, wherever power is produced by coal or gas the metro is worse than a bus."

Mohan has ordered coriander and lemon soup to start and we share a portion of liver pâté. The latter is easily Basil & Thyme's pièce de résistance and I am anxious not to out-eat my guest in my enthusiasm for it.

I point out that part of the antipathy to the BRT has been the result of slower speeds for the cars. "Door-to-door speed has not changed in 70 or 80 years, no matter what you do," he counters asking me how long it took to travel to the restaurant in my car. Twenty minutes, I say, and he mentally calculates that my average speed would have been 20 km an hour. For a comparable journey on the metro, he provides a detailed break-up from the time it would take to walk to the station and concludes it would have taken me half an hour. "So using a metro is not time-saving, it's time-wasting. It's only when you go more than 20 km to work that the higher speed of the train makes up."

In any case, he says he can't understand why the press gets so excited about 6 km when "people sit in horrible traffic jams in some 100 locations in the city, everyday! Why are they not asking for those locations to be improved?" He added that the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) asked an international agency to assess the BRT about two years ago and it was pronounced the most well-designed road in the country. "CSE has also done an evaluation on walkability and BRT comes out number one."

Our main courses arrive — grilled prawns for him, moussaka, a Greek lamb dish, for me. His portion looks too frugal (plus I am guilty of healthy incursions into the pâté) but he insists that this was more than he usually eats for lunch.

I raise the issue of safety, which has dominated the public discourse ("Killer BRT" being a standard descriptor). His answer is matter of fact: "Before the construction of the BRT corridor, that stretch of road had an accident rate as high as 17 per year. During construction it was less than 10 per year."

In 2008, when the BRT became operational, there were four deaths, which were attributed to some buses travelling at high speeds. After that, bus speeds were controlled by placing rumble strips in the bus lanes and there were zero deaths in 2009. These rumble strips were removed or were worn out in 2010 and accidents increased in 2010 and 2011, many of them involving cars at high speeds at night. "The latter type of crashes can occur on any good road when it's empty unless speeds are controlled by policing and appropriate road design," he points out.

Given the fate of the Delhi BRT, how come a similar project in Ahmedabad worked smoothly? Because, Mohan replies acerbically, "after the Delhi experience, Mr Modi had the BRT built where there is not much traffic. If I build the BRT in the desert it will be perfectly successful! The argument that the BRT should be built where you don't have too many cars is opposite of what transportation planners say all over the world."

I suggest that a change in the duration of the signal on BRT might help traffic flow. "I have no problem discussing the operational issues but I have a problem when people tell lies," he replies spiritedly. Lies? Yes, one paper wrote that the BRT has 2.5 metres for bicycle lanes and only 3 metres for cars. You can see that that's wrong." He is as exercised over the personal attacks. "One paper actually asked me where I got the money to buy my Mercedes!" he recalls.

That is laughable since his Merc is of 1982 vintage, but he is not amused. "Even if the car was new, how I bought it is the income tax department and institute's problem. Sure, if I am corrupt that is an important issue but it is separate from the design of the corridor!"

Talking about the origins of the BRT project – it dates back to mid-nineties when the Central Pollution Control Board asked for a 10-year perspective on transport options to reduce emissions – he rues the fact that official data on transport "is really horrible – has no bearing on reality. For example, when the Delhi government says there are 6 million cars and motorcycles in the city, the census shows 2 million. Where does 4 million come from? Because no vehicle gets taken off the list since we pay a one-time tax! Then again, official statistics mention Delhi as having about 26,000 km of roads. It appears some official counted each lane as a road! I reckon the actual length is 6,000 to 8,000 km."

Mohan is also a member of the committee on National Transport Development Policy, which is headed by his brother, former RBI Deputy Governor Rakesh Mohan. How far had that progressed? The sectoral reports are in and will be considered sometime this year, he replies, but the subject provokes another assessment of India's serious knowledge deficiencies. 

"Think about it. We don't have one internationally-recognised transport economist in the country! All of us function like economists without knowing the subject. Then, there is no – not one! – IT expert on transportation in any academic institution in the country. And there are three experts who are trained for safety — you have to have 2,000."

He recently did a search on studies published on all aspects of transportation in India, China, Brazil and, as an extreme, the US. "India turns out to be by far the worst. In Railways alone, China published 1,600 studies in the last five years, or about 300 per year. India published 16."

"How does China produce those studies? It turns out that just the ministry of railways has three research institutes outside the ministry employing more than 3,000 people each. We have Research, Design and Standards Organisation under the railway ministry, which employs some 20 people."

Meal over, we settle for coffee. I complain to Mohan, who retired from IIT last year but continues to teach there, that there is little information about him on the Web. Perhaps that is because, like his brother, public service runs in the family and he doesn't feel the need to highlight it. His grandfather retired as chief engineer of undivided Punjab (that is, Haryana, Punjab, Himachal) and his father worked in the Uttar Pradesh PWD, retiring as the first managing director of the UP State Bridge Corporation.

His own education is interestingly varied: from schooling in Doon School (Rajiv Gandhi's batch) to a mechanical engineering degree from IIT, Bombay to a Masters in aerospace engineering at the University of Delaware to a PhD in biomedical engineering from the University of Michigan. He did a stint in Washington with the Institute of Highway Safety before coming back to India. "I always knew I would come back — that was never a decision for me," he says as we part ways and he summons his ancient Mercedes.

First Published: Tue, April 03 2012. 00:14 IST