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Subir Roy: Ticket to a bus ride

Subir Roy  |  New Delhi 

After a gap of five years, the good people of Bangalore have come forward again to make their presence felt. And the area of action could not have been better chosen — public transport. For a city pulled down by its nightmarish transport problems, hope for a better future has come in the form of new smart-looking low-floor buses in attractive colours like green, orange and blue.

The state-owned city bus operator, Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation, has introduced two new services, Big 10 and Kendra Sarige. The real big event is the former — new comfortable buses with higher standards on ten arterial routes which converge on the city centre. The latter are blue and orange buses that circle the central part of the city in clockwise and anti-clockwise directions which should provide the interchange that people travelling across the city can use to shift from one arterial route to another.

The news so far is that the Big 10 service seems to have taken off and the frequency of these buses is being increased. The circular routes have not yet taken off and those posh buses seem to be going empty most of the time. So some finetuning will have to be done — reduce the fares, spread awareness about the nature of the service and the like.

The vision of those who have planned the new service is to eventually shift the city’s bus system to direction-oriented travel from destination-oriented travel. Ideally and eventually, neighbourhoods will have local feeder services with smaller buses which can negotiate narrow roads. These will take passengers to the nearest Top 10 route. And the last element will be a couple of concentric services — along the outer ring road and the intermediate ring road and its logical extensions — so that passengers do not have to travel to the city centre to go from one arterial road to another.

The final goal will be to get passengers to pay for trips through smart cards or issue tickets by the hour — usable on all services — so that people can complete journeys using more than one route and change from one to the other quickly because services will be frequent, maybe every five minutes. When that day dawns people will find it more convenient to leave their cars at home, or park them somewhere and take a bus. That will reduce congestion on roads, rein in automobile pollution and go a big way in reducing the energy waste that goes with private transport.

The new initiative is the brain child of an organisation — ABIDE or Agenda for Bengaluru Infrastructure and Development Task Force — led by industrialist MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar. It is chaired by the state’s chief minister and has as its members a galaxy of senior government officials and prominent public individuals who have long interested themselves in urban issues. It has set itself the task of conducting studies and offering plans for state agencies to improve the quality of life in Bangalore.

What is significant is that the model of ABIDE is so very similar to that of BATF or Bangalore Agenda Task Force (the two names even have three common words) that, during the early part of this decade, became a highly successful public private partnership to improve the quality of life in the city. BATF also resulted from the initiative of a corporate leader, Nandan Nilekani, and was blessed by the chief minister of the day, SM Krishna. It was able to get the cooperation of the top civil servants because the political signal to cooperate came from the top.

What is disturbing is that BATF was killed by the bureaucracy (it felt threatened) and the political opponents of Krishna as soon as he lost power. By that token ABIDE should also die once the present BJP government in the state exits. This places us squarely before a cardinal dilemma. Nothing works like public private partnerships in getting to improve city life. But for such partnerships to work they need support from the top political leadership. However, as soon as that leadership goes, the partnership is dumped. Then a new one is born, along the same model, with the blessings of the leadership of the day.

The real challenge is to derisk this highly effective model. Both the partnerships have arisen out of thought processes nurtured by informed citizens who have been publicly canvassing for a better Bangalore for years. Ramesh Ramanathan, who leads the active NGO which spearheads citizen’s initiatives, Janaagraha, is a member of ABIDE.

The real brain and dynamo behind the transportation group, which is working with BMTC on the new bus services, is Ashwin Mahesh, a faculty member at IIM Bangalore. He has helped found Mapunity, which builds systems that can be used in governance and public affairs. His tools are information, communication, technology and management. While politicians come and go, people like Ramanathan and Mahesh abide. They are the hope for better cities for a better India.

subir.roy@bsmail.in  

First Published: Wed, April 22 2009. 00:46 IST
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