Monday, June 16, 2008

AC BUSES FOR DELHI: STICK TO YOUR CAR

Delhi is home to 14 million people, not counting those who live technically just outside its limits but are Delhiites for all practical purposes. Over 1.6 million Delhiites own cars while 3 million own two wheelers.

To help this huge mass of humanity commute in this vast and largely horizontal city, there were just 7,000 buses as of August 2007. This number should have gone up to around 10,000 by now, with these buses running on 657 routes across the capital. Approximately 8.7 million people travel by these buses every day. Till November 2007, the entire fleet was of high-floor, poorly built and even more poorly maintained buses belonging either to state run Delhi Transport Corporation(DTC) or small private operators.

The DTC is a terribly inefficient, hopelessly corrupt and perpetually loss making white elephant which has been efficiently turning middle class officials and politicians into millionaires for decades now while doing little to make life of the travelling citizen better. Private operator running the Blueline killer buses have, not surprisingly, consistently made profits and a lot of people richer even as their drivers have been driving like Formula One drivers and claiming the lives of many innocent citizens on Delhi’s roads.

Delhi would have continued to live with rickety, ugly and uncomfortable buses designed probably in the fifties had the city not been hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2010. That event has somehow galvanised the government into turning Delhi into a “World Class” city by that deadline along many dimensions, including its bus service. But, going by present plans, it is apparent that the Delhi government has ‘missed the bus’ once again by failing to be alive and responsive to the fast changing demands and aspirations of ordinary Indians.

Thanks to the vision, integrity and dedication of just one man, E Sreedharan, Delhi has already got a Metro Rail network better than one will find in most cities of the world. In India, where almost nothing ever gets delivered in time except babies, Sreedharan has shown repeatedly how large projects of global standards can actually be delivered before time, time after time. The superb air conditioned metro trains have caught the imagination of people like never before and, for the first time, car users have actually switched to a public transport system in significant numbers. The metro already has a network of 68.2 kms which is to be extended to 125 kms by 2010 and finally to 413 kms by 2020. That this success has not even touched the Railways is evident from the fact that they have not yet thought of reviving the almost defunct suburban train network of Delhi by inducting AC EMU coaches and providing feeder bus services to various stations like the metro has done.

More than 900 private cars are added daily to the already congested roads of Delhi. The city already has more cars than the other three metros, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata combined. The Delhi Metro has demonstrated emphatically that if a good, clean and reliable public transport system is available, those who commute by cars will switch to it for the numerous advantages that it provides, including a reduction in the risk of a serious accident and freedom from the tension of driving on a congested road with chaotic traffic. These days almost all cars are air conditioned; the few non air conditioned ones that are sold are mostly budget taxis. With dropping prices of ACs and rising income levels, many more people can now afford ACs for their homes too. And things are only going to get better, faster than those planning a better public transport system for Delhi manifestly understand.

One of the major aims of improving the buses in Delhi is to provide an “alternative mode of transport to those who prefer to travel to their offices in the air conditioned comfort of their cars...to reduce congestion on roads.” That is what Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit said while flagging off the first low floor AC bus of the DTC on June 04, 2008. Yes, the first AC bus for the capital city of this huge and aspiring nation has got on to the road a full 61 years after Independence and 24 years after Maruti ushered in the small car revolution in India and gave the middle class office goer an affordable AC car to commute in!

While that response in itself speaks volumes about the unpardonably delayed reactive response of our policy makers and administrators – the word pro-active is not in their lexicon – what is even more shocking is their plan to meet the thrust-upon-them objective of getting those who drive their cars to use buses. It requires no intelligence to realise that they will use buses only if they get clean and reliable AC buses. Non-AC low floor buses, the horse that the government is putting a major part of its money on, will not attract them at all. Has not the metro taught all this and more beyond any doubt to even the intellectually challenged? Has not the AC metro attracted even those who routinely travel by cheaper DTC and Blue Line buses?

The lowest fare for the archaic and overcrowded high floor buses is Rs2. For the spanking new green non-AC low-floor buses, introduced only in November 2007(!), it is Rs5 and for the swanky, squeaky clean and super-efficient metro, it is Rs6, going to a maximum of Rs22. Despite a three times difference at the lowest end, given a choice, nobody will travel by bus if he can get onto the metro. Those extra four rupees are worth spending on the qualitative difference in travelling comfort for most, except the really very, very poor who are proportionately rather few in Delhi. The fare of the AC buses has been fixed between Rs10 and 25.

Despite all this information and more available, Delhi government plans to induct 5000 low-floor buses by 2010, out of which only 1000 will be air conditioned! For a city which buys almost 1000 cars every day, the government’s solution is to put just 1000 AC buses on the roads by 2010. All this noise being made about decongesting Delhi’s roads is obviously just that.

The era of non-AC city buses is almost over. The Delhi Metro has given ordinary citizens a real taste of they quality of public transport they can get and should have been getting for long. Similarly, kirana shops and small fruit and vegetable vendors, long used to getting away with poor quality and poorer service, are getting hit by retail chains selling quality stuff in a comfortable and modern air conditioned environment. Mall mania is another clear pointer that people quickly appreciate and graduate to the next level of comfort and quality, if it is well priced.

A whole new world is opening up. Yet, Delhi government is stuck with tiny, reactive incremental improvements to its pathetic bus service. Induction of a large number of non-AC low-floor buses represents a mindset which has never thought big or ahead, as does the starting fare of the AC buses which, at Rs10, is twice that of low-floor buses of similar design and five times that of older high-floor buses. The government is clearly stuck in time; to it, air conditioning still represents “luxury” for which commuters should be made to pay heavily.

Don’t excited by the great fanfare and publicity that marked the introduction of the first AC bus in Delhi a few days back. As things stand now, it is going to be little more than gimmickry. With so few AC buses being inducted to cover such a huge city, one can be dead sure that their frequency, routes and connectivity will force you to stick to your car as before, no matter what the price of fuel and no matter how congested the roads become. When that happens, one can be equally certain that the blame for the state of affairs will again be passed on to those who buy and drive cars and not those who should have been pro-active and provided the city with a world class, congestion-free bus network in the first place.

And, those who are forced to travel by buses because a lack of a better alternative will, as always, continue to sweat it out in the oppressive heat and humidity of overcrowded buses just as they have been doing for decades. Unless of course, the government of Delhi gets someone like E Sreedharan to get things moving in the right direction at the right pace.