Soaring fuel prices: Manmohan, Chidambaram sit on their hands

Volvo services in Bangalore and Chennai are few, and carry a handful of passengers because tickets are outrageously priced.
Volvo services in Bangalore and Chennai are few, and carry a handful of passengers because tickets are outrageously priced.

The Manmohan Singh-led UPA Government, which is running a fever over the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, has done precious little on one of the growing areas of energy demand — transport. The national discussion has tilted completely towards this deal and its political fallout, ignoring the plight of the common man as his life is torn apart by inflation.

The inaction and ineptitude of our trained economists in the seat of Government is pushing up global oil prices, and at last count, it had touched 146 dollars a barrel. We saw the somewhat unusual spectacle of a market-oriented Finance Minister, Mr. P.Chidambaram, pleading with oil producers for voluntary price controls on a commodity that, going by raw market economics, will continue to command higher prices as supply diminishes and demand shoots up.

Neither Dr. Manmohan Singh nor Mr. Chidambaram have lifted their little finger to reduce demand for transport fuels, thereby helping the speculative pressures on the oil market. They have come to believe that adding one million-plus cars and far many more two-wheelers annually to the already staggering tally of 72.7 million motor vehicles registered as of 2003 (Action Plan on Climate Change, 2008) is the answer to economic productivity. They have let the bus industry stagnate, given unreasonable tax benefits for car production and ownership and have done virtually nothing to bring about policy changes in the way urban transport is organised, funded and operated.

As a result of their apparent lack of intelligence, the international hawks skimming off profits in the oil sector have been able to cite the growing demand for oil in India. Although China is also cited as a reason for the rising prices, the Chinese have done better with urban transport.

A classic example of the idiocy of transport policies followed by the UPA and the States is the operation of so-called luxury bus travel. For Indians, who have been used to rickety buses, even a properly designed bus appears as a luxury. Hence, the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation and the Metropolitan Transport Corporation in Chennai opted to deliberately overprice their newer bus services, particularly those operated with Volvo air-conditioned buses.

The Manmohan-Chidambaram-Montek Singh troika, guided by shadowy global lobbies for particular transport technologies operating in the background, did nothing to convince the States, using either carrot or stick, that they had to actually make everyday travel by bus and train both attractive and affordable. Their cussed view that all economic growth came from the tailpipes of cars has led to the evaporation of hopes of affordable transport options in the public sphere. It has also had a cascading effect in the form of neglect of walking facilities, and cycling pathway creation.

These three gentlemen, if they can survive in power and if they decide to use their impressive economic training, can change all this. There needs to be a national law now, mandating efficiency in Surface Transport. Such an Act must amend the Constitution to make urban transport a concurrent subject, and empower the Centre to dictate the terms of operation of urban services through a system of regulators. According to the Ministry of Urban Development, no metropolis other than Hyderabad has even come forward to integrate the operations of buses, rail and feeder systems.

We need a deadline by which the States must have transport regulators in place. All roads must have footpaths of a width of at least two metres, and should not have structures or incompatible activity that impedes pedestrian movement.


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