Chennai 2008: Experts ignore the low hanging fruit

A group of experts whose comments on Chennai’s transport mess are reported by The Hindu today (read it here) show how policy is aiming for the long-term, which is positive, but is missing out on here-and-now initiatives. The speakers rightly rue the terrifying impact of automobiles on Chennai’s roads, but lose their focus in their comments on what could be done.

Chennai's roads are dangerous for two-wheeler users, as this scene on Anna Salai shows. Public transport enhances safety.
Chennai's roads can be dangerous for all forms of transport users...This odd-sized cargo, visible to CCTV cameras, was spotted on Anna Salai.

Perhaps the strongest criticism must be reserved for the MTC. The Managing Director of Chennai’s bus monopoly, Mr. Ramasubramanian has stated at the meeting held to consider the CMDA’s Second Master Plan for Chennai, that his corporation is “holding discussions” to introduce smart cards that can be used both on trains and buses.

Coming from a government-owned bus operator that will not even operate services from MRTS stations, this is ridiculous, if not dishonest. We have for long been arguing for separate bus routes to start from and others to cover the network of MRTS stations. When we filed a Right to Information Act petition with MTC, the same bureaucracy told us that it was up to the Railways to provide facilities for MTC buses. In many MRTS stations, such facilities already exist, but are ignored by MTC.

Secondly, the MTC pretends not to know the solution to attracting more riders to its services, including the so-called value-added ones. It does not sell the monthly travel cards, (Travel As You Please passes as they are officially referred to) through the month. If anything, its system is hostile to those who want to buy the cards. They must go to specified bus termini at particular times of day and only during the first fortnight of the month. This can readily be replaced with a seamless pass issuing system that works through the month, is available widely (like SIM cards for mobile phones that are sold in thousands of outlets) and covers every single bus run by the MTC. If the MTC wants some extra money for its air-conditioned Volvo services, it can sell a separate pass on similar lines, although the answer would be to sell one pass that covers all, with differential tariffs for service.

Obviously, Mr. Ramasubramanian knows that all these solutions are workable right now, and therefore, they are not very convenient. He would rather talk about the pie in the sky. We condemn this attitude.

Again, the Southern Railway has done little to improve its own side of things. The MRTS services have in real terms been scaled down, not increased during the last reorganisation of the schedule. There are 122 services, but 24 of them are available spread over four hours of the day, while during another four hours, the service level drops to a ridiculous 8 trains in all, or two per hour. By any metropolitan transport standard, this is nothing but laughable.

We also think the Walking Classes Unite campaign, which got off to a good start recently with a walk for pedestrian rights along the Marina should be taking up the cause more seriously. One swallow does not make a summer, and one walk is easily forgotten in the din and bustle of a city of a few million people. Our view is that there should be regular walks each month, in the most congested parts of Chennai.

There are several prominent individuals interested in civil liberties, public health and green politics, and they could be invited to participate in these periodic events. Incidentally, the blog advertised in the media widely by WCU for its previous meeting has suddenly gone password protected.

Lastly, we would like to emphasise that Chennai’s mobility problems arise primarily from the indifference of the middle class. This car and two-wheeler bound section of Chennai residents are throwing away the future of their children, and their own — let them remember that when they turn 70, they will be ineligible for driving licences. By then, without a sustained effort, our roads will be heedlessly altered to suit the needs of more and more marauding automobiles. They will then have no space to walk, even if they wished to. They will have none to turn to at that point.

It would be better to return to sanity today.


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