Chennai UMTA: We are led by the nose

An April 18 picture shows broken seats in an MTC deluxe bus. Commuters pay 150 per cent more than base fare for these services. Photo: Hema K.S.

Today’s Chennai edition of The Hindu has a story that is headlined “The need of the hour is to make UMTA a reality.

If you Google for “Chennai UMTA”, you get links to a graveyard of stories that point to the complete dishonesty of the Tamil Nadu Government when it comes to forming a UMTA that has strong legislative backing. Of course, the piece in The Hindu sounds sufficiently serious, without actually drawing attention to the chicanery of the Kazhagams on the UMTA so far (starting with Ms. Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK).

The news story also falls flat for other reasons: The MTC has been granted a lot of funding by the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) under the JNNURM, for acquisition of buses. These buses are of better specifications than the pick-pocket friendly designs of the MTC, have LED display boards and so on. All these buses are operated on “Deluxe” fare, which means, the basic ticket is 150 per cent more expensive compared to the ordinary services of MTC (a first stage ticket costs Rs. 2 normally, and on Deluxe, it is Rs. 5). What is perhaps MTC’s most egregious violation of the National Urban Transport Policy is its stubborn refusal to operate any link services to the MRTS rail services, despite the Central Ministry funding the buses. Incidentally, MTC is one of the government-owned entities in Tamil Nadu that has not hosted pro-active disclosure of its activities as mandated by the Right to Information Act, 2005. It does not even mention who its Public Information Officer is.

The Hindu’s piece by Ajai Sreevatsan is silent on these basic issues. Surprisingly, another recent piece by the newspaper unquestioningly accepted MTC claims that it is incurring a per kilometre loss! If the Centre has funded all the new Deluxe buses in the grant mode, how does it add to the MTC’s costs and lead to a ‘loss’? Moreover, all the JNNURM services are run at maximum fare, and it is acknowledged that MTC’s daily collections have soared.

Another basic flaw in the newspaper’s approach to the issue is the treatment of commuter interest, vis-a-vis dry official claims of finances, operational details and so on.

As we have pointed out in the past, the MTC has been obdurate on the question expanding the availability of daily, weekly and monthly bus passes. These travel-as-you-please passes are deliberately sold by the corporation only at a handful of locations, that too only in the first fortnight of the month (for monthly) and at restricted timings. The entire approach of the MTC to passes runs counter to the funding stipulation under the JNNURM, and NUTP, but The Hindu’s coverage is remarkably silent about it.

Lastly, UMTA under the UPA policies has been pursued not just in Chennai, as a perusal of documents on the MoUD website will show. Hyderabad has a Bill in place, Mumbai has tried it. Half a dozen cities are working on Bus Rapid Transit systems, all of which can hope to deliver on service quality only with modernisation of ticketing and UMTA-aided integration. But the concept seems too complex for the media!

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The problem is that the MoUD has no political will to exert the required influence on the Railway Ministry and the State Governments, to bring about changes to the way transport is run in India’s cities. Quite simply, we need a new deal.

The country’s transport service framework is of the 1960s vintage, and half a century has not brought about any change in the mindset of the rulers. For Governments, it is a colonial vestige that must be periodically dusted and painted, to accommodate the bottom quintile that cannot afford its own vehicles. For transport workers, it is a vehicle for unionised mobilisation (we stress here that we respect and will fight for workers’ rights, but do not recognise their right to determine the type, frequency, fare and nature of services, which are in the realm of commuter rights). For politicians, the pool of labour is useful to organise political dharnas, agitations and “off the road” situations for a bandh.

A legally-backed UMTA can change all this, and make commuter rights actionable. Commuters would assert their rights if the level of service is not good, would fight service cuts, demand increases and bring sufficient pressure to professionalise the system.

None of this is part of the media focus on the UMTA.


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