Posted in Published Article, Urban India

Why we have no real say over our Public Transport Systems

Published in Times of India, Pune on 14 November 2019. Lost and found. Posted here for you.

In an article published almost exactly a year ago, I had pointed out the huge impact of British colonial rule on Indian cities and towns – especially their love of low-form urbanization, which had proved to be utterly unsuitable and unsustainable for India’s teeming millions.

By limiting the Floor Space Index (FSI – Built-up permitted wrt land available) in Indian cities, we have forced people to settle further and further from the city centre and their places of work, education and healthcare. Moreover, because our national priorities immediately after Independence were food security and rural distress, our cities never really had the resources to provide the public transport networks, which would make a sprawling city viable – as London is.

Any latter-day attempts at densification fail because our existing infrastructure like water pipes, sewerage lines, power supply, simply cannot cope with high rises. Both the ill-conceived JNNURM and its progeny AMRUT and the SMART cities programme have found the limits of retrospective infrastructure upgradation, to our (the taxpayers’) immense cost.

The lack of adequate public transport has inevitably led to a growth in private vehicles, increasing pollution, and unsustainable traffic congestion on our roads. Further, retrofitting today’s cities with public transport networks like the metro are hugely expensive – not just in terms of the capital outlay but also the opportunity and social costs of the upheaval caused during construction, as Pune citizens are only too aware of.

The sharp rise in the private ownership of motor vehicles and the multiple modes of private transport have made traffic management a nightmare, leading to an unacceptably high rate of serious and fatal road accidents. The upgradation of roads and networks is extremely expensive if done retrospectively and therefore the only way out is to integrate transport planning into urban planning at all levels – locality, city or region.

Just look at the facts:

  • There are over 210 million vehicles on Indian roads and more than 90% are privately owned
  • Percentage of land under road for Class I Indian cities is 16% compared to 29% in USA, with 1.6 million km of non-rural roads
  • Inadequate road length leads to congestion, pollution, higher fuel consumption, with peak hour speeds limited to 5 – 10 km/h
  • Suspended Particulate Matter in India’s 3 largest cities is greater than 3 – 4 times WHO maximum acceptable level
  • At the ground level we find that manufacturers use the same truck engine and chassis for all buses, and therefore, Indian cities have few, if any, buses especially designed for intra-city travel, further adding to the inefficiency of the system.

Part of the reason for the growing crisis has been that urban transport management in India is a case of all responsibility and no authority for local governments. For instance, it is the State Government which formulates Development Plans which lead to urban sprawl, but it is the local body which must provide subsidized public transport. Yet again, registration of new vehicles being a very lucrative source of income for State Governments, there is no incentive to limit their number, and it is left to local bodies to provide parking and road space for them.

When it comes to the building of new expressways and flyovers, the contracts are given either to large private firms or to parastatals like MSRDC, NHAI or BMRDA. It is noteworthy that ALL parastatals are accountable only to their respective State or Central Government, and not the local authorities.

The same is the case with rail-based transport systems like metros, which depend totally for expertise and execution on the Indian Railways and its subsidiaries, which are under the Central Government, and are seldom geared to handle local issues and concerns. Once these large projects are handed over, their maintenance and upkeep become a further responsibility for municipal bodies.

So, like everything else in India, we need a paradigm shift in our patterns of urban planning and urban governance – and that dear reader is unlikely in the near future…


Deteriorating Services and Infrastructure in India


I am a trainer of Government Officials and Elected Representatives, specializing in the urban and municipal sector. I have also written extensively on Urban Governance, Poverty, Development, Social Accountability and Municipal Management in the Indian context, and wish to share these writings with you through this blog.

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