Oil price hike: DMK Government should stop messing up transport policy

The price of petrol is willy nilly going to rise, whether or not the UPA Government formally acknowledges it. Little imagination is needed to see that this is a tacit move on the part of the Centre to raise petrol prices through the backdoor, using the “branded” fuel route. It had to happen sometime. Read the report in The Hindu here.

Now it appears that it is likely even for ordinary varieties of petrol.

We have been stressing repeatedly, the futility of attempting acrobatics with fuel price, at a time when it is on the rise globally. The Left has been trying to get the UPA to do a kind of trapeze act with Customs duties and urging the State Governments to reduce their levies, to make fuel cheaper. This is a silly attempt to rein in prices of fuel when demand is constantly rising in the country. In fact, Left Front governments appear to be eager to push up demand further by encouraging the car industry, rather than the bus and rail industries.

In Tamil Nadu, the Karunanidhi Government is seemingly yet to wake up to the reality of the oil price rise. Its Rip Van Winkle stance is deceptive because it is well aware of the results of its actions — inflation has pushed comfortable basic travel out of the reach of so many, and raised the cost of living in the State. Unregulated autorickshaw operations are adding to the inflationary trends. To cap it all, the State Government has slowed its investments in public transit systems, after initially making loud noises about improving it.

Why are we not getting these buses to travel in comfort and at low cost?

Given the inexorable rise in fuel prices, we emphasise, again, that the DMK Government should relook its transport policy. If it does not have the political will or the financial resources to invest directly in bus operations in urban centres, it should confine itself to regulation and open up this sector. Set a transparent framework in which the private sector can participate, in a regulated way. We are not recommending privatisation of the Metropolitan Transport Corporation, but for investment of the kind prevailing in many international systems, under a well-regulated framework. Even Communist-ruled Kerala has the space for such participation. The investments could be through appropriate co-operative initiatives or even through self-help groups with requisite capacity.

The model of the participation could be decided through financial and public consultations, but there is no case to delay a review of the rusty transport policy of the DMK Government. It is hurting commuters, and it is stoking the fires of inflation, besides affecting basic mobility for tens of thousands of people. These are not the outcomes expected of a democratically-elected government.

There are any number of policy recalibrations that can achieve good effects even before making new investments. Make the sale of bus passes easier. Sell the daily, weekly and monthly passes throughout the day, and through the month, just as the Railways operating in the same State and City do. This will remove a major bottleneck to the use of the buses currently operating and new ones that the MTC has promised to put on the road. Repair and run old buses that are still roadworthy, rather than confine them to the depots, while money is accounted for as spares and siphoned off.

Take MTC buses into railway station precincts wherever the facility exists. This is possible but not being done. Start Volvo bus services at affordable fares from key locations, with a guaranteed frequency through the day. Becoming greedy does not yield the results, as the DMK regime has been finding out: its latest Volvo service between Chennai Central railway station and the Chennai airport was offered at Rs.100 a ride, which can only be termed exploitative. Is the culture of mafia-dominated autorickshaw operations overcoming the Government too?

The route AC 1 Airport - Chennai Central Volvo on Anna Salai (Mount Road), near Simpsons. Not too many available.

Unsurprisingly, the MTC has had to revise its fare for the AC 1 Chennai Central rail station to Airport from Rs. 100 to Rs. 50 peak. Although this move is positive, it has not learnt all the lessons availableĀ from its bungled initiatives, especially with Volvo and Deluxe services.

What has happened to the State committee to recommend integration of transport modes in Chennai? Is the UPA Government, now in lame duck mode, asking any questions before handing over taxpayers’ funds under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM)?

Don’t wait to make the same mistakes that the United States made and blow holes in the pockets of Indian citizens with a muddled transport policy. This is costing us heavily in terms of the climate, public health and social welfare. If the Transport Minister of Tamil Nadu is not well-versed with transport policy imperatives, he can start with Paul Krugman’s recent column.

The message for the Transport Ministry of Mr. Karunanidhi’s government from the public should be, to borrow Ted Turner’s philosophy, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”


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