Budget recognises urban transport

Last Updated: Sun, Mar 17, 2013 05:37 hrs

One of the positive steps announced in this year's Budget speech is making provision to support the purchase of up to 10,000 buses, especially by the hill states. Though initially in the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) the focus was on taking up projects to improve basic services like water supply, solid waste management, etc., when the economic stimulus measures were taken up in 2009, it was considered prudent to support the purchase and provisioning of 15,000 modern buses in the 65 mission cities. Though essentially a measure to provide some relief to the auto industry, this became a real game changer in terms of visibility for the mission in the cities and also finding resources for new rolling stock at a time when there was no possibility of the states on their own finding the required resources to introduce new, modern buses.

The new buses with the JNNURM logo prominently displayed on the buses made a real difference for visibility and impact. There was a clear message, given that the share of buses in public transport deserves to be enhanced, and the introduction of modern, new, in many cases low-floor and air-conditioned buses could gradually set in motion a trend to depend less on personalised modes of transport.

The National Urban Transport Policy of 2006 did lay down a detailed direction as to how states and cities could improve the share of public transport and reduce congestion and pollution. The stated objective is to increase this share in our nearly 4,041 notified cities and towns - and hopefully in 3,894 'census' towns also, which in effect continue to be rural areas - from 22 per cent to 60 per cent. It is unfortunate that transport, on which poorer families have to spend as much as 25-30 per cent of their total income, does not even figure in the basic tasks of most of our urban local bodies. It must be remembered that out of India's 85 cities with a population of five lakh or more, only 20 had a city bus service in the year 2009.

The high-powered expert committee on urban requirements lists few cases of improvement in public transport in recent years. This has happened either because prioritisation happened or resource support was made available. Delhi's rail-based MRTS and Ahmedabad's Bus Rapid Transit System have successfully contributed to improving the situation with respect to public transport. To this could be added the subsequent introduction of the cluster bus system. Ahmedabad's Janmarg with an exclusive bus lane, planned as a network of 89 km with buses owned and operated by private operators, has won awards at the national as well as international level.

How a key initiative at the level of the government can bring about a major change as far as city mobility is concerned also comes out clearly from some other success stories. Indore, which did not have a public transportation system till 2004, now has a city bus service with 104 buses run by a special purpose vehicle. Surat's bus fleet of 125 established in 2008 was carrying 70,000 passengers every day some years back. Jabalpur is another example where the traditional mode of public transport in the form of autos, cycle rickshaws and two-wheelers has been replaced by operation of metro buses through a newly-formed company. Among the hill cities, Shimla has a network of local bus services operated by the Road Transport Corporation and private operators, recently supplemented by 75 buses provided under JNNURM. Since the resources of the states are limited, they have succeeded in implementing the PPP system in a good number of cities, examples being BRTs in Ahmedabad, Pimpri-Chhinchwad and Visakhapatnam and modern city bus service in cities like Vadodara and Jalgaon.

With urbanisation growing in our country and provisioning of urban bus services not keeping pace with this trend, the resultant situation is that of chaos and gridlock in most cities and also in many smaller towns. Tackling this huge challenge would require massive investment in urban areas both for clearing the backlog as well as for newly urbanised areas. The Twelfth Plan assessment for investment in this sector is of the order of Rs 388,308 crore. Such huge resources are not going to be available within a short span of five years. But initiatives like the present one in this year's Budget, if made a regular feature each year, could go a long way in having organised public transport and moving in the direction of a larger share for public transport, a must for our ever-expanding cities. Maybe, the first target should be to cover all the 468 cities which have one lakh or more population and which account for 70.2 per cent of India's urban population.

Also, learning from the experience of the last bus funds allocation, the states and cities which would benefit from the new allocation should be made to adhere to and implement the much needed-reform conditions. Otherwise, in a few years' time we may be left with buses which become a liability and for proper maintenance and timely replacement of which there may neither be interest visible nor the resources. This would become more relevant if more of the buses are proposed to be provided to hill towns for which workable models of sustainable management will be needed with far more attention to detail, considering such towns/cities may not have sound sources of non-fare box revenue on their own.

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