Public data available on the website of Chennai’s Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) shows that the Tamil Nadu Government has virtually frozen the level of bus service in the State capital for many years, obviously to aid car companies. There is a clear pattern emerging from the underinvestment in bus services. When read with the fawning comments made by the DMK senior leaders in favour of car companies, it becomes clear that this is not an innocent development.
For many years now, starting with the Jayalalithaa-led government going out of its way to bring the Ford Motor factory to Chennai, and followed by the DMK Government courting automotive companies such as Hyundai (which returned the favour by presenting Chennai Police with free Accent sedans), Mahindra, Mitsubishi and so on, there has been a strong influence of these companies on policy.
What strengthens our view is the moribund nature of transport services on a temporal scale. It is interesting that the MTC bus fleet remained virtually static between 1994 and 2004, a decade when there was a planned move to create car-dependence in India. There were 2332 buses forming the MTC fleet in 1994, and a decade later, it was 2773. The population of Chennai grew dramatically during this period, but the modest rise in the bus fleet was hardly a match for it.
More significant is what we find happening later. The bus fleet had zero growth during 2004-05 and the next year an insignificant 30 buses were added net, to the fleet strength. Everyone riding buses is aware of the pathetic maintenance of the fleet during the pro-market Jayalalithaa government, and its fall in 2006 raised hopes that there would be a new, robust public transportation policy from the Karunanidhi-led DMK regime, which was part of the UPA, and which in turn was pursuing a forward-looking National Urban Transport Policy.
True, the average age of buses was reduced by adding more buses to the fleet, subsidised in part through funds from the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Mission (JNNURM). This metric, in Indian conditions, indirectly explains the condition of the fleet — whether it is plain rickety junk or rusty buses halfway to becoming junk. All that had happened was that the poorly maintained old buses were replaced with new ones, which again fell into the cycle of bad maintenance and are today breaking down.
That is less important, though, when you consider that the number of buses available for each route operated by MTC was virtually static through this period.
It is amazing that in 1972, when the then Pallavan Transport Corporation had 1029 buses, there were 5.84 buses per route. Cut to 2009, and what is the figure? 5.03 buses per route! (Remember that Bangalore has double the number of buses today compared to the Chennai fleet)
Not much imagination is required to see the need for a vastly augmented service on each route, considering the spiralling population of Chennai and the sprawl that is encouraged by politician-fuelled real estate speculation. But one can only wonder why the DMK Government, which is in a constantly self-congratulatory mood about its transport record, kept the figure static over an entire generation. Was it the allure of the car companies?
It is time this shameful performance on public transport in Chennai by the two Dravidian Kazhagams was ended, and the misuse of public transport to suit party interests stopped (the transport unions are used to launch partisan political protests that involve no wider social issues, and ignore the interests of both transport workers and commuters).
The Central government has been appallingly silent on the rampant corruption in the use of the JNNURM funds, with the Chennai buses funded – including the 100 plus – Volvo fleet allowed to break down and rust away.
The major political parties contesting the 2011 Tamil Nadu Assembly elections must be compelled to come out with a manifesto for urban public transport for Tamil Nadu’s major cities and towns. That is an absolute necessity if the present rot has to be ended and a modern, integrated transport system made available to the public.Only a party that promises to run 10,000 buses at affordable fares in Chennai deserves our support. This will also boost employment.
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