Thoughts on the Urban Mobility India Conference 2017

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The same lip service to public transport was paid at the 10th urban mobility conference held in Hyderabad from November 4 to 6 as in previous years.

Every year the annual exercise is becoming monotonous, boring and predictable. Yet, I ventured again this year but gave up after the first day. I learnt much more about transport problems by walking n Hyderabad.

I walked for over 4 km. on the upper class Banjara Hill from Raj Bhavan to KBR K Brahmananda Reddy Park and a similar distance in the evening on the promenade of Husain Sagar, the lovely lake.

It is a terrible city for pedestrians. During my walks and bus rides I found a shocking neglect of footpaths all over even in the new, so called modern cybercity. There is rubble all over on road sides. This shows the utter hollowness of the claims of the establishment that it has improved or wants to improve the lot of common people.

On Banjara hill I saw a little nice patch of footpath only outside the luxury hotel Park Hyatt and this was clearly for the prestige of the hotel.

Surprisingly, even the Husain Sagar promenade walking space is so shoddy, so broken, uneven, full of hazards. It was poorly lit and there was so little social life though it was a Sunday evening. Such a beautiful lake deserves much better treatment. One reason for lack of life is public access is so poor. Bus stops are a mile or so apart.

Hectic work is going on on the Metro rail network but the Metro passes through some very narrow streets and this reduces space for pedestrians even more.

Outside the L.V. Prasad eye institute, I found that the lift and the escalator on the road were not working and one had to climb a steep bridge to cross to the other side. Really tough for even the able bodiesd and a nightmare for patients with bandaged eyes.

On the positive side, the local bus system managed by the state transport corporation seems quite good though the condition of buses and bus stops is bad. Visibility of buses is far more than in Mumbai. Secunderabad railway station, which I visited often, is very well connected with buses and traffic is well regulated there with segregated lanes for private and public transport.

There is also a good bus connectivity between the airport and the city. Near the secretariat I saw a stop for these buses with timings displayed on the board. The electronic display system was not working, though which again shows how laughable are the claims about information technology’s use in transport. The fare is Rs 263. Shamefully Mumbai totally lacks such a bus connectivity.

Lack of connectivity with people and their actual problems is also a major problem with the UMI conference. Real problems don’t get reflected. There were two major urban transport disasters in the last couple of months, both in Mumbai, the stampede on the Elphinstone road railway station bridge in which 23 people were suffocated, trampled to death and many were injured and the BEST Undertaking, once the pride of the nation’s public road transport system, ran into a major crisis of survival and finance. The municipal undertaking does not have enough funds to pay salaries though Mumbai is easily the richest urban civic body in India.

There was enough time for the organizers to put these topics on the agenda but the programme as usual remains highly esoteric, too technically oriented mainly to finance, engineering and completely lacking in the human angle. The whole subject is reduced to a technical exercise. The conference needs a complete overhaul in approach.

Everything is wrong starting with the venue itself. The Manekshaw Centre, a venue for several years in Delhi, is so badly connected that even the country’s former urban development secretary, K.C. Sivaramakrishnan, could not locate it when he went to deliver the keynote address a few years ago. He himself said so in his speech I remember. . For the first time the venue was shifted last year outside Delhi to Gandhinagar in Gujarat which too was quite ostentatious. And this year it was the height of ostentatiousness. It was in the Hyderabad International Convention Centre (HICC) in a remote area beyond the Hightech city area. Few people know about it. My Ola auto rickshaw man had not the faintest idea or pretended not to know anything and took me to another isolated spot. A bus I took goes very near the venue but the conductor had never heard of it and so I could not get down at the right stop.

There is a wide divergence between the politicians’ talk of promoting public transport and their actual policies and work. Why with all this talk is public transport becoming so bad ? As vice president Venkaiah Naidu said in his inaugural address, the share of public transport will actually fall further by 2021. Unwittingly, he completely exposed the government.

And now Andhra chief minister Chandrababu Naidu wants to create an equally ostentatious, glossy international convention centre in the proposed capital city of Amravati with a seating capacity of 6000 people. And it will have capacity to park 1000 vehicles which shows the same obsession with private , personal transport. A new capital city provides an ideal opportunity to promote public transport , reduce dependence on the car. But see the priorities. It is shocking. Perhaps not so shocking if one sees that the powers that be want to plan the city on the lines of the mythological city in Bahubali, the terrible stunt film which was a commercial hit.

It is common sense that we should avoid the mistakes made by the Western countries in promoting private transport and some of the French delegates made this point at the inaugural session. But who cares ?

All the venues for the conferences have been chosen because they offer huge, free car parking spaces. It is odd that when public transport is the need of the hour, as Mr Vekaiah Naidu said, the venues are so unfriendly to public transport and government policies, by all actual indicators, work against public transport .

Yet, Mr Naidu claimed that India had made great strides in public transport. The Prime Minister is due to inaugurate the Hyderabad Metro rail system later this month and the project will be projected as another great milestone in public transport.

But nothing would be farther from truth. The Delhi experience shows that the Metro has done little to check road congestion. In fact, it is worsening. This is because of the unbridled expansion of the private car network. Unless we attack the root cause, the unchecked growth of motor cars, no expansion in public transport will yield resulys. Mr Pedre Ortiz, World Bank consultant, was right to warn in the valedictory address that the Metro has to be supported by other facilities.

Next year the conference is to be held in Nagpur, the home town of the chief minister, Devendra Phadnavis, and the union public works, roads minister Nitin Gadkari, an ardent champion of the highway network. Hopefully, they will give a serious thought to these issues. After all these years in the ministry at the state and central level, Mr Gadkari has realized that it is necessary to check the growth of motor vehicles. Else, he will have to provide more highways and roads. It is a vicious circle. Politicians, bureaucrats and planners must first get their priorities right. It is they who need proper education. Common people are the victims and they know that public transport is the key and the administration is just not doing its job.

The current fog in Delhi is at least partly due to air pollution caused by the exploding vehicle population there. We need to get out of this fog as well as the ideological fog created by the ruling class in conjunction with the automobile lobby.

— Vidyadhar Date, Author, Mumbai