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Improving public transport infrastructure

Last week, the AAP government proposed an “odd/even” number formula for cars to be rolled out from January 1, 2016. This step is line with the Delhi government’s aim to reduce vehicular pollution in the city. According to the proposal, cars with odd number plate and even number plate will ply on roads on alternate days. If the policy is indeed implemented, Delhi will become the first city in Asia after Beijing to go ahead with the scheme. Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation had ranked Delhi above Beijing as the world’s most polluted city. Commenting on the ambitious move by the AAP-government in the wake of alarming levels of pollution in the city, Chief Justice of India TS Thakur said the problem was grave and drastic measures were needed to curb pollution. Asked whether the apex court judges would follow the policy and sacrifice by resorting to car pooling to reach the court, he said, “We would love to do so if it helps reduce pollution”.  “There is no difficulty in this. I think this is the bare minimum which we can do. People call it sacrifice. This not a sacrifice, this is symbolic to show that judges are doing it,” said Thakur. In response to a specific query on how the CJI would follow it, Justice Thakur said he could share the car with his next door neighbour Justice AK Sikri. Although such a proposal seems a little odd at first, the government at least seems to have understood that putting a premium on using roads is the only way to solve the problem of vehicular pollution. Admittedly, there are obvious problems surrounding implementation and the AAP government would do well to learn from Beijing’s example. Before implementing restrictions on the flow of vehicles, the Chinese capital had constructed an extensive subway and public bus network and installed sophisticated automatic surveillance, using cameras instead of traffic police to implement the rules. Moreover, car-pool lanes were put in place to establish last-mile connectivity. Despite certain failings, the Beijing example is pertinent. What the Chinese authorities did was to establish a sophisticated public transport infrastructure before ordering their citizens to forego their cars on particular days. It had given the consumer an alternative to using their cars. For Delhi, an understaffed traffic police force to check violations and the counterfeiting of extra number plates are just some of the implementation issues that stand. The problem of containing vehicular air pollution in Delhi, however, is not just relegated to the “odd/even” formula.  

In the national capital, the metro rail system has come as a major boon for the consumer and the city’s air. It has taken away approximately two million commuters off the road. Although travelling by the metro is a relatively comfortable experience, getting to the station can be problematic. Moreover, as the city’s population continues to rise, stampedes during peak hours have become a common occurrence. Although feeder buses do run from certain stations, there aren’t enough to fulfill the consumer’s need for last-mile connectivity. Not everyone can afford to hire expensive taxis from Ola and Uber. The only alternative present before us is the good old auto rickshaw. However, according to many commuters, hailing an auto rickshaw is a cumbersome process. Even if they agree to ferry a customer, it is unlikely that they will follow the standard meter rate. 

The AAP government could do a lot worse than easing the regulations on auto rickshaws. In order to ply an auto rickshaw, the driver needs three different government permits: a commercial license, a “badge” and then a “permit” for the vehicle itself. Back in the late 1990s and before the advent of CNG, the apex court had banned the issuing of new auto “permits”. Despite the advent of CNG, the apex court order remains intact. Instead of asking the court to withdraw its order, successive Delhi governments have only sought permission to issue another few thousand permits. The eventual result is a lack of autos on the road and the hoarding of permits. The mafia involved in hoarding permits rent out autos at Rs 450 for 12 hours, according to current rates. Although a new auto costs anything between Rs 1.5-2 lakh, a permit in the back market costs up to Rs 4 lakh. Suffice to say, many who ply these autos are under tremendous financial strain and are compelled to disregard the standard meter due to the demands of rent and running a household. Despite the dawn of liberalization in 1991, Delhi’s auto market continues to function in a bygone license-permit raj. The artificial shortage of autos that is subsequently created can be understood by the data available on the Delhi government’s website.  For a city of 17 million people, there are only 74,000 auto permits that have been issued. According to other estimates, there are another 75,000 autos plying illegally, without permits. Even if all these autos were issued permits, it would still fall short of the numbers required. The AAP government must move the apex court to withdraw its order. Mumbai, for example, with a population of 18.4 million has 246,000 auto rickshaws. 

The lack of adequate public transport to handle extra demand can be extended to the public bus system. Earlier this year, the AAP government had dismantled the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system.  Despite the loud protests of the media on behalf of traffic-jam plagued cars due to the BRT system, the common man still takes the bus. Approximately 60 percent of commuters still travel by bus. Suffice to say, there were design and logistical problems. But the larger issue was of implementing the rules pertaining to the BRT system. Where were the police authorities? Where were the fines for parking in such a way that obstructs traffic? With the BRT system dismantled, there are other measures the AAP government can take. Besides broken seats and windows, minimal access for the disabled and no space to stow luggage, overcrowding in the Delhi Transport Corporation buses is a major concern. Those who do take the bus do it out of sheer necessity. These basic features need to be repaired in existing buses before the AAP government orders another 10,000 units. Moreover, with the advent of GPS and the smartphone, the authorities could establish a system, whereby commuters receive second-by-second updates about time of arrival, disruptions, accidents and delays. Commuters in London and New York, for example, use the Citymapper application to receive updates. Other simple ways to make the commute worthwhile could be the implementation of free or ad-supported Wi-Fi connection across DTC buses. The time to professionalize Delhi’s public transport infrastructure has most definitely come to tackle the growing menace of vehicular pollution. 
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