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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Transport Horror

The New Year is a time of celebration and joy to most people. Human psychology being what it is we like to think of it as a time for good tidings to begin and rightly so as we are predisposed to hope and wish for the best. That said it certainly hasn’t begun on a good note for the road users of Pune and that means every citizen of this city. We all use some form of transportation for some reason or the other. Whether it be going to work or recreation or students to their classes or even housewives to the bazaar etc. There is probably not a single household above the poverty line which does not own some kind of vehicle. The road network is chock-a-block with the sheer number of vehicles using it. Some would say it is a matter of pride that the per capita income as compared to a few years has gone up exponentially thereby jacking up the buying power where it is now possible for almost everyone to think of owning a vehicle. Add to that a vehicle has also become a barometer for perceived status in society. It is a less known fact that Pune has the highest number of two-wheelers in any single urban space in the world. Some years back the book of records mentioned Pune as having the most number of women drivers too.


Mankind has made more progress in the last 150 years than the 15000 years preceding it and wheels literally and figuratively been one of the top 5 contributors. Viewed upfront it paints a rosy picture but at the risk of sounding a pessimist I would like to draw the attention of the reader to downside of said progress. They say there is always a price to be paid for progress they say and it is no longer a price we can afford.

Recently the writer had an opportunity to spend a month in Europe. Now I am sure we all agree that it is one of the most developed areas of the world. Most of us have read or seen it on television while some us have marveled on our travels there. Save during the world wars the quality of life index has always been near the top of the charts. Being curious to observe and understand the kind of life the local populace has, the writer preferred to stay in apartments rather than hotels, and using public transportation was a no-brainer considering the cost of hiring cars. It did not escape us that buying a car or two-wheeler and maintaining was certainly not encouraged whether by way pricing or taxing it out of the reach of certainly individuals or by way of strict laws. In which case one has no option but use public transport or car-pooling. What had to be taken from the entire situation was that using public transportation was the only way out but we all know that unless the said service does not perform it isn't an idea that is going to work. Efficiency on the part of the service and conditioning of the public was the byword here.

We can all speculate but seeing is believing and the observations were that though the desire to own and operate a vehicle was there the conviction was lacking. Motivating this thought process were factors like the on-time performance, predictability, cleanliness, comfort, easy to understand time-table and route chart and matter of fact attitude of the staff operating the service. It was far from perfect I would say. The staff could do with a bit of courteousness and the fare structure could have been more in favour of citizens wanting to travel short distances but this is nitpicking and in the larger scheme of things something that one can live with. The pros far outweighing the cons. This was true of inter-city travel too and brings to mind an anecdote from my childhood. Around 25 years back I remember a story one of my friends father told us. He had recently been to Austria and had taken the overnight train to Switzerland. On questioning the attendant as to when would the train reach his destination he was told to simply step off the train at the time of arrival and would find himself standing on the platform. Though my friends father may have taken a bit of touristic license with the story the gist is very clear.

Now imagine our public and state owned transport services operating on these lines. Pune needs this to happen yesterday. What ails the PMPML and the MSRTC? A survey of passengers was conducted at various bus stops and depots around the city as also the Swargate and Shivajinagar bus stands. Interviews were taken of drivers and conductors manning the buses but on their insistence on condition of anonymity as they were unwilling to go on record for fear of persecution by their seniors. It is sad that this should be the case in the worlds greatest democracy. Common threads began to emerge as the regards the problems facing these bodies but as expected there was no common solution. Some solutions were obvious, others unique and some downright outrageous bordering on the violent. It seemed to come across as a statement on the educational exposure of the person or peer groups he was moving around in.

Distillation brings forth undeniable reasons. Embracement of technology is something that was not lost a single person. Not for lack of reason is Pune called the hotbed of technology. We are still running buses made on the same basic technology that was state of the art 30 years ago. They have been upgraded in certain ways but it still falls woefully short. Empathy for the end user and the operator dictates that we move to recent technology. The road and traffic conditions haven't remained the same so why should the vehicles? Can one imagine a private car owner buying a Premier Padmini or Standard Herald today? Especially after the Maruti revolution? Cars are getting better by the day and what was in vogue 3 years back is no desirable. All over the world local city bus corporations have moved to ultra low maintenance, low NVH (Noise, Vibration and Harshness) air-suspended, power steering equipped, air-conditioned, low-floor, high fuel efficiency, automatic transmission units sometimes using extremely environment friendly fuels which results easier operability, less fatique, more comfort, fewer breakdowns and more profitability. Sure they do cost more, something to the tune of 4 times more but the end result is always more money in the bank for the company running them. Drivers cited the state of the roads and traffic congestion was as a major contributor to road rage. The fatique experienced over a shift is akin to rigorous manual labour due to lack of driving conveniences. The deplorable state the buses are maintained in does little to instill confidence in the machine and there is a fear factor that it might breakdown in the middle of the road stalling traffic or a lack proper response might result in an accident. This is certainly not good for the mindset of the drivers.

Contrary to these examples what is happening here is a reluctance to embrace these methods for various reasons like fear of technology, misguided information, and vested interest on the part of the city fathers who in all probability are interested in the kickbacks. Bearing the brunt is the state and the populace.

It has been a month since the gruesome incident of MSRTC driver Santosh Mane going berserk and mowing down 9 people and injuring 32 in the city after hijacking a state transport (ST) bus. When questioned as to why they thought it happened we got some interesting responses. A few knew him personally and spoke of some personal issues he had but none came across as mitigating circumstances. It seems to have been a combination of factors such personal grievances, angst against the employers, economic distress and the strain of driving the unfit vehicles on the highways that finally sent him over the edge. Asked whether they thought they might end up doing the same some day the reply was, "Who thought he would do something like this? Life is not easy for us." Except for two individuals who said an outright no and some who said he was mentally disturbed the rest got me thinking...

It is but a corollary that an efficient service will take more private cars off the road and decrease congestion reducing travel time, decrease pollution in a major way, people will arrive fresher at work not having had to drive thereby increasing output and it might also result in people who are friendlier and more cordial in general. It means stress induced medical bills could take a beating. Savings in terms of road wear and tear aren't easily quantifiable but I understand from a distinguished Civil Engineer who has served as Chief Engineer in the PWD that it could be in the hundreds of crores. Not only will the infrastructure last longer but will need less harassment to establishments on the periphery of the roads as space acquisition for road widening need not be carried out as frequently as it is now. Benefits to the state exchequer would be in the form of a lower oil bill keeping precious exchange in the country. This is not the Lamp of Alladdin that can wished overnight but given time and patience can be done. The trickle down effect of a single decision implemented in the proper way will take years to manifest. Rome was not built in a day.





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