Friday, May 9, 2014

Let them eat transport cake


Around the world and even across India, public transport systems may not be readily associated with the elite. India’s Silicon Valley, Bangalore, has managed to turn the dictum on its head: one perhaps needs to be a part of the elite -- the other 1 per cent, in American terminology -- if they are to use the city’s public transport on a regular basis.

The Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) must be India's only public transport system to hike its fares five times in the last two years, the hike amounting to a whopping 15 per cent the last time.

To gain a sense of how the hike is intently managing to put easier commutes out of the reach of the common man, here are some figures:
·        1) The minimum fare is Rs6; those for second and third stages of the trip are Rs12 and Rs14 respectively
·       
2) A stage may involve two-three stops, spaced not more than a couple of kilometres apart (A trip just outside the third stage and onwards will cost the bus-goer a cool Rs16)

Thus a trip from Indiranagar to MG Road, a distance of 2.5 km, will set you back by Rs14. Want to travel from Ulsoor Lake to the Majestic bus stand (8 km)? Be prepared to shell out Rs21.

And in case you were wondering, Bangalore occupies the unenviable position of being the costliest Indian city when it comes to bus travel, as this report by the
Times of India  illustrates.  Talk about ticket to penury.

To understand how the fares stack up with those in other metros, chew on this: In Chennai, a city long regarded as having a superior bus service network, the minimum fare is Rs3 – that too only after a recent fare hike. If one were to travel from the Koyambedu bus terminus to the suburb Tambaram – a distance of 28 km – the fare would come up to a mere Rs15. The standing joke has been that in Chennai, travelling by bus is its denizens’ favourite pastime. In fact, such has been the sensitivity over bus prices that the ruling dispensation in Tamil Nadu attracted a lot of flak for the not-so-recent fare hike despite the transport corporation wading in deep losses. It also figured as a major issue in campaigns to the recently concluded general elections, with the opposition parties, unsurprisingly, denouncing it in no uncertain terms. Other Indian cities are as conducive to bus travel as Chennai is, the report adds. From Mumbai to Delhi or Kolkata, practically every Indian city makes allocation to absorb the losses incurred by the public transport systems.

In contrast, every time the bus fares creep up in Bangalore, the common excuse that has been trotted out is the spike in diesel fares. As if no other transport corporation in the nation faces increased costs and/ or losses. It is for this reason that we Bangaloreans may also the best well-wishers of the Middle-east, greater than Obama, the U.N., NATO, the Ayatollah, Hina Rabbani Khar and Malala put together. Not out of compassion but for a perennial wish for stability in oil prices. The exasperation at witnessing our purses getting emptied every time we board a BMTC bus can move mountains, you see.

Now you know whom Michael Jackson had in mind when he sung Heal the world…

With its single-minded approach towards profits, the impression generated is that the BMTC is a private agency, which it isn’t. The state government could, at the very least, consider privatising it – after having abdicated from providing an affordable and reliable service. At least commuters then wouldn’t grudge at the high prices as there would be a semblance of service – and accountability.

Cutting down on operating losses, by ensuring that conductors issue tickets to all commuters, could help bring down ticket prices. The phenomenon of BMTC’s conductors – and this is no sweeping generalization – not issuing tickets to commuters is an established truth. As reward for not demanding the ticket, the commuter gets a “rebate” on the fare, which adds to BMTC's financial burden. Common sense would dictate that deployment of checking squads frequently can curb the phenomenon, but it is anyone’s guess as to the efficacy of their deployment.

And then there has been the issue of successive governments going all-out to augment air-conditioned bus services (read Volvo). In about a decade, the number of schedules of the ‘Volvo’ buses has shot up to over 700, gentrifying our buses as well. In fact, certain routes, such as those to the IT hubs (ITPL in Whitefield and Electronic City on Hosur Road) have nearly become the preserve of these high-end services. It is as if those apart from software professionals do not use buses along these routes.

All this makes one wonder whether the BMTC’s mission statement of “sustainable, people-centred and choice mode of travel for everyone” was conceived as a practical joke aimed at its 4.95 million daily passengers. Profits are essential to any enterprise, but can they be the raison d’etre to a public transport system? 

It may be germane to refer to an incident that occurred in Silicon Valley (the original), when angry residents blocked company bus shuttles, notably those belonging to Google and Facebook, protesting that the infusion of tech workers has led to cost of living shooting through the roof (something that Bangalore has been witness to for at least a decade). While the BMTC can do nothing about the cost of living, a reasonable tariff could help prevent an encore to its famed Volvo buses.

The BMTC may have stopped short of saying Marie Antoinette's infamous words, “Let them eat cake”, but there is time to prevent a revolution.