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Mihir S Sharma: Road rages

Mihir S Sharma 

The future of India is being decided along a six-kilometre stretch of South Delhi road. The fate of Delhi’s Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, system – forcibly truncated to just the short stretch between Moolchand Hospital and the Chirag Delhi crossing on the Outer Ring Road – will indicate how we deal with some of our most pressing questions. Will our urban policy, and our development, privilege those have already benefited most from it? Will we make decisions through the slow, often inept, balancing of interests the democratic process provides, or through the illusion of transparency and efficiency offered by a coalition of noisy NGOs and an activist judiciary?

On Friday, the Delhi High Court passed an interim order, of the sort that mostly goes unnoticed. It directed Delhi’s transport department to keep the BRT open to cars as well as buses till it eventually rules on whether that should be made permanent. It is, of course, far from certain when that ruling will arrive; the court is awaiting a study by the Central Roads Research Institute. This follows a plea by the NGO NyayaBhoomi that the BRT caused car traffic to slow down. The rational response to such whining: yes, so do traffic lights, do you want to ban them, too? Yet the Court not only entertained the petition, in January, but later also allowed a secondary request, that it determine even the temporary status of the BRT.

Certainly, what was once a trouble-free stretch for cars now takes 10 minutes longer. The well-heeled sit in their SUVs on their way to Sainik Farms and grumpily contemplate the sight of India’s great unwashed zipping along lanes set aside for buses. Naturally, this reversal of the natural order cannot be allowed to stand. Here’s where NyayaBhoomi steps in. The eccentric NGO has, in the past, done some sterling work revealing the distortions in Delhi’s auto-rickshaw market — where supply constraints have inflated costs ridiculously. Their website blames East Delhi MP Sandeep Dikshit for this, daring him to sue them. Many would say the actual cause was a Supreme Court judgment that capped the number of auto-rickshaws in Delhi for 14 years. NyayaBhoomi, in spite of its study of auto-rickshaw economics, seems incapable of coming to the obvious conclusion about possible consequences from judicial intervention. I suppose basic common sense cannot be expected from an organisation that prominently features a photograph of the prime minister (two of whose predecessors have been assassinated) delivering a speech from behind bullet-proof glass with a caption mocking him for being insecure in the midst of “his people” — their quote marks, not mine.

The High Court was told that interim results from the CRRI’s study suggest that traffic flows “more smoothly” when the BRT’s dedicated bus lane is thrown open to cars. Yes, that is possible. But, one wonders: is how smoothly cars can move the real province of a country’s overstretched judicial system? Do we now have a Right to Unimpeded Access for cars?

If not, then if 30 cars move slower so one bus carrying 80 people can go quickly, do not people benefit on average? Two-thirds of Delhi travels by bus. But more than 95 per cent of vehicles on its roads are cars. Do we respect the rights of people, or of vehicles? All estimates so far suggest average wait time on the BRT has decreased — for people. Why are the courts being asked to decide, then?

The head of NyayaBhoomi, a retired colonel named B B Sharan – who has pre-empted the Court in the past by bulldozing parts of the BRT in the middle of the night – revealed some of his thinking to The Wall Street Journal recently. Cars carry the “thinkers, the managers, the judges, the advocates, the real wealth-makers of the city... Shouldn’t it make a difference if a judge’s time is wasted, if he reaches [his] office late?” But, for bus users, “three to four minutes... doesn’t make any difference.” Oh, these poor people, they don’t really have places to be. So he wants judges, “whose time is wasted”, to step in.

That’s exactly why policy of this sort should be decided by governments elected by and accountable to all Indians. There’s an additional reason: if a mistake is made by the executive, it can be swiftly corrected. As Delhi’s dysfunctional auto-rickshaw market reveals, unintended consequences of court judgments aren’t so easy to fix.

And what if, say, further studies suggest average wait time has actually increased thanks to the BRT? Government can correctly say: this stretch is only part of the proposed system. Once it’s expanded, more people will use it. That’s the case with all public transport; the greater the network’s reach, the more people switch to it. Once they do, whatever equations we have now will change. Such forward-looking, inclusive policy is one of the reasons we have a state. “Development” without it is worthless — never mind how many rickety, car-pleasing flyovers we build, swelling builders’ bank accounts and oppressing pedestrians and cyclists.

Those who care for the fuure of India’s governance, therefore must, regardless of what the studies show, have but one hope: that the High Court looks unfavourably on Col Sharan’s petition.  

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First Published: Sat, July 07 2012. 00:15 IST