Monday, March 15, 2010

Folly on private wheels

Opinion page, DNA, March 15, 2010

In Mumbai, you cannot travel on top of a train any more. Western Railways has decided that it will not run a train if even one person is found sitting on the roof.

Excellent. How could anyone object? The railways are concerned that people will get electrocuted as they have switched from 1,500 volt DC to 25,000 volt AC current for the suburban electric trains.

But people hang on to the roofs of trains not because they enjoy the cool air. They do so because there is no place in the compartments below. Or they just cannot afford to buy a ticket.

Despite all this, Mumbai’s suburban rail network — one of only four major cities in the country to boast of one — has a great deal going for it. In fact, until the 1960s, Mumbaikars were spoiled for choice of public transport — trams, buses, taxis and the trains. You did not need a car. Indeed, it was difficult to own a car unless you had a good deal of money. Everyone used public transport, unless they were rich, or in government.

A sensible government would have invested five decades back to enhance all modes of public transport, given that they benefit the majority. Nothing of the kind has happened. Instead investment has facilitated the movement of private motorised vehicles — two- and four-wheelers.

Meanwhile, the aam aadmi, unable to access the roofs of trains, continues to figure out a way to squeeze into railway compartments that lack even breathing space.

The crisis faces not just Mumbai. Every big city in India is facing similar choices — how do you provide the majority of urban
residents safe, affordable, and clean forms of transport? By doing so, you also save our cities from becoming the most polluted in the world, a dubious distinction that they have already earned. In India’s three largest cities, levels of suspended particulate matter (SPM) and respirable suspended particulate matter (RSPM) are three to four times higher than acceptable levels set by the World Health Organization.

The principal cause of this is vehicular emissions. The growth of motorised vehicles in India at 10% per year is higher than the growth of the GDP. While the population in India’s six major metros grew 1.9 times between 1981 and 2001, the vehicle population grew 7.75 times. Over one-third of the total number of motorised vehicles in India are in our metropolitan cities, where only 11% of the population lives. Delhi alone accounts for 7% of all motor vehicles.

Vehicular emissions increase when the speed of vehicles slows down. In most cities, including Delhi and Mumbai, peak-hour speeds are down to 5-10 km per hour, resulting in a five-fold increase in all pollutants.

If the foul air does not kill you, crossing a road will. In 2001, more than 80,000 people were killed in road accidents in India and
the rate of fatalities is growing at just under 5% per year. Half the traffic fatalities in Delhi are of pedestrians, 10% of bicyclists,
21% of motorcyclists and 3% of car occupants. In Mumbai, 80% of traffic fatalities are of pedestrians.

The mortality rate in India in road accidents is 8.7 per 100,000 as compared to 5.6 in the UK, 5.4 in Sweden, 5 in the Netherlands and 6.7 in Japan. If you take the ratio of mortality per 10,000 vehicles, India’s rate jumps to 14 as compared to under 2 in the industrialised countries.

Road fatalities and air quality will improve if there is better public transport. This is not rocket science. Yet, in every big city, new investment is geared towards facilitating movement of private motorised vehicles.

The new schemes announced for Mumbai, for instance — two more sea links, an expressway and an elevated road — costing thousands of crores of rupees, will help only a fraction of the population. And while people and offices have moved to the north and east of the city, the planners are working out ways to transport people to the south of the city — which hosts mainly government offices.

Perhaps this explains why successive governments pay only lip service to public transport. In Mumbai, politicians, bureaucrats and top corporates live and work in south Mumbai. In other cities, too, they live close to their offices. They do not need public transport.

Unlike the West, where the rich moved to the suburbs as cities grew, in India the poor are pushed out while the rich occupy prime real estate in the centre of cities. The poor commute. Their concerns do not dictate development policy. Indian cities exemplify that tragic reality.

(To read the original, click on the link above. Also a more detailed piece on this subejct on Infochange India:

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