The answer to Chennai’s congestion if the AIADMK is looking for one

This piece in The Hindu does a partial analysis of the problem of gridlock in Chennai; there are some rough estimates of costs involved, although by no means all of them. Welcome as the effort is, for all its concern about expansion of public transport, it is too brief to deal with the numerous issues that affect mobility today. It also does not discuss the more recent, incomplete policy initiatives either.

The political context is that the just-gone DMK Government had launched a process of augmenting city transport with backdoor private sector entry (largely by party cadre and supporters) in the form of mini-vans popularly known by their marque, TATA Magic. Having sworn by nationalised transport over the years, the DMK could not be seen as letting down the bus corporations or the notional monopoly of the MTC in Chennai. However, it went about the job quietly, using the grey zone of taxi permits which were allowed to operate as stage carriages (by contrast, another class of share autorickshaws objected to this, but this opposition was steamrolled by the Karunanidhi regime).

With the change of Government, and a sharp fuel price hike that virtually accompanied the AIADMK takeover, the expectation was that the Jayalalithaa Government would focus on the growing mobility crisis in Chennai and other urban centres. The key issue is that there has been no significant expansion, and the feeder-turned-mass mode (the mini-vans) provide only a fraction of the supply needed, that too in some restricted segments.

Nothing of the sort has happened. The TATA Magic operators seem to be uncertain about the future, although they continue to operate. In some ways, this situation is similar to the fate of mini-buses introduced by the DMK in its earlier Avatar in 1996-2001. When it returned to power in 2006, there was wide expectation that Mr. Karunanidhi would augment this model, and extend it to Chennai, but that was not to be.

The failed urban transport agenda in Chennai and the rest of Tamil Nadu remains moribund under the present AIADMK regime. Faced with rising fuel prices, the government could have used regulation as a demand management tool:

1. Provide the option to all valid autorickshaw permit holders to operate as share-autorickshaws (overnight increase in capacity at cheaper, regulated fare with no additional investment)

2. Open all interior routes to participation of TATA Magic type of six or seven seater mini-vans. This needs regulatory oversight and some level of enforcement, but fits well with the pattern of inner-city transport for congested localities.

3. Augment the arterial bus routes over a one-year period with a doubling of capacity, with good quality buses. If New Delhi could do it for the Commonwealth games and Bangalore has a good ongoing programme, why does Chennai feel incapable?

4. Launch a crash plan to improve all city footpaths to Indian Roads Congress specified widths and walkable surface. The Chennai Corporation announced earlier that it would remove obstacles, but that remains a dead letter and has not been followed up by the media.

5. Pursue mass transit rail infrastructure seriously over the medium term, without politicising it.

Does this government have the vision and the will to do all this, even though it may upset some vested interests?

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