This is the draft of the edit I wrote for the EPW issue dated 04-11 April, 2009.
[The political role of the small car is as important as its environmental impact]
The collapse of public transport in the past few decades has been a stark feature of almost all urban areas in India. Significantly though, this matter has only found tangential reference in public discourse through issues like urban air pollution. Independent India has witnessed a six fold rise in its urban population, and even though urbanisation remains low by standards of industrialised countries, close to 300 million of our citizens live in urban areas. It is important to realise that cities, to thrive, are crucially dependent on easy and inexpensive mobility of its residents over its urban space. Unfortunately, like with other public infrastructure, public transport has been grossly neglected by city administrators, state and central governments and this neglect has impacted the urban poor the most.
The ability to travel within the city is essential to actualise the economic and cultural potential of the city. Residents need to travel for work, for education, for socialisation and for procuring the needs of daily life. The more areas of the city which can be accessed by a particular citizen, the more his potential ability to increase choices of work, residence, consumption and socialisation. Increase in either the time or money required for such travel proportionately reduces the urban citizen’s ability to participate in civic and economic activities of the city and thus impacts adversely on her. As cities have expanded and distances within each urban space have increased manifold, the ability to travel these distances has reduced.
The public transport in cities which independent India inherited was slowly allowed to wither away. Most people will not even perhaps remember the trams which were the backbone of public transport in the four large metropolises of India in the 1950s. Today, only one city – Kolkata – has a relic of this inexpensive and extensive public transport system. While the tram-system disappeared, its place was taken by no other planned system. Most cities witnessed the haphazard growth of busses, three-wheelers, two-wheelers and cycles. The older metropolitan areas still retained a rudimentary public transport system based on busses but these were built on truck chassis and were never enough to handle the growing demands on public transportation. Mumbai was the only metropolis with an inexpensive and efficient rail system, but it could hardly be called comfortable or safe. The emergent cities and semi-urban areas were mostly left to depend on “innovations” which were mostly diesel machines fitted onto a locally assembled chassis of three or four wheels known by different names in different parts of India. All in all, public transport in urban India has been a disaster – over-crowded, slow, unsafe and often, unavailable.
It is in this context that one needs to view the growing numbers of private vehicles, both two-wheelers and cars. In 1951 there were five private vehicles for each bus in India but today there are 80 private vehicles for each bus. Not have municipal administrators and governments neglected public transport, they have actively subsidised private transport through fiscal, administrative and planning measures. Road tax on busses, even when calculated on the basis of passengers carried, is 10 to 12 times that on cars. In a city like Delhi, busses only use five percent of the city’s road-space but carry close to 60% of its travelling public, while cars and two wheelers ferry only 20% of its population but hog three-fourths of its roads. Ultimately then, the neglect of public transport shows itself as a class issue where investments in urban mobility – flyovers, parking lots, wider roads, smaller pavements, etc – are all focussed on easing the mobility of the middle classes in urban India. Tellingly, the largest investments in public transport in the past six decades, the metro rail projects, are all planned in terms of middle class mobility too. The orchestrated media campaign against faster and safer bus services through the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridors only indicates the strength of class interests seeking to mould urban transport systems.
It is in this twin context of the centrality of mobility to urban living and the collapse of urban public transport that the popularity of the recently launched Tata Nano should be understood. It is worthwhile to remember Ratan Tata’s oft repeated statement that the inspiration for the Nano was the struggling middle class family perched precariously on a two-wheeler. Such a family, while owning personal transport, would welcome an improved public transport system which would enable them to travel in the city in comfort and safety. By enabling them ownership of a car, the Nano secure this archetypal family firmly to the interests of that class which hogs the privileges of the class-divided road. It would be a mistake to take no notice of this political function of the Nano. The Nano, despite its overt sympathies for the under-privileged road user, will only further skew the class divides which fracture our cities, apart from increasing pollution and congestion, while decreasing general safety on the roads.
David Harvey, in a recent essay on the right to the city, says, “The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from that of what kind of social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values we desire. The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city”. An inexpensive, safe and fast public transport system is essential not only to address the growing problems of congestion, pollution and road safety, it is also central to building a more democratic city which provides equal opportunities of mobility to all its residents.
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