This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s Uncommon Ground, where she brings together titans of industry and leaders of civil society to explore eight themes that are highly relevant for our future development. In this episode, she moderates a discussion on transportation with Professor Dinesh Mohan of IIT Delhi, who was the expert resource for The Bus Rapid Transport (BRT), and Rahul Bajaj, Chairman Bajaj Auto, and member of the Rajya Sabha. These conversations explore the middle ground between the ideological divisions that often polarise the business and voluntary sectors. In course of these rare dialogues between leaders who have sometimes been adversaries, a number of common concerns emerge.
Rohini Nilekani: Public transport planning is key, and with energy prices the way they are and increasing migration to urban areas, how can we push the pedal on this?
Dinesh Mohan: I think we have to step back a bit. Every trip by public transport involves two trips by foot — you have to get to the bus or the metro station, and then you have to leave the bus or the metro station to get where you’re going. The biggest problem with public transport in Indian cities is that it’s not safe to do that trip walking or cycling. So a large number of children, older people, and women don’t like to walk to their bus stop. In terms of city planning, they’ve developed quite organically so people tend to live closer to work, apart from the rich. I think the first step is to make it easy for people to walk or bicycle, otherwise they won’t take public transport. It’s very important to make our sidewalks safe, smooth, and wide, otherwise people won’t use them.
Rahul Bajaj: I agree with Dinesh, we have to maintain a balance. Even as a private transport manufacturer, I do see the need for smooth public transport. To enable one to use public transport, we need to make it more convenient, safe, and comfortable. It also means we need good governance. This is not to say that we should leave everything to the government, rather that we need a public-private partnership. The private cannot deliver unless the public is strong, after all the contracts are given by the public sector. However, unless we have expertise in the public sector that is as good as the private sector, that partnership won’t work. For example, some of us who have studied abroad have seen that half the class joined the government, but that’s not happening in India today. From the best universities and the best institutions, people do not move into government positions. Unless the capacity of our government is built up, we cannot effectively do public-private partnerships. We can’t keep framing the public sector as something negative, it is an essential component of our society.
RN: Are we going to see an inevitable rise in private personal transport then? Is there an opportunity for the private sector in providing public transport services?
RB: I don’t think we’ll see a huge rise in private personal transport. In Delhi, only 18% of families own a car. If we look at world statistics, a society becomes a car society when the per capita income is more than $10,000 per capita. We are only $800. Even after 20 years, we will only be $3,000, nowhere near $10,000, and most of the people in this country, even in cities, will not own a car then. There is opportunity for public-private partnerships — there’s nobody in the public sector making vehicles for commuting anymore. The whole argument for 30 years was that public transport bus service will close down because it’s inefficient. We were also told they work under some handicaps, my first answer is, “Remove those handicaps.”
DM: Two things have to be made clear, that the private vehicle owner is heavily subsidised. If we take parking for example, there are very few civilised cities now where you can park free on public land. No matter where you park, you have to pay parking fees according to the real estate values. Here, everyone expects free parking. Once you price things right, charging the correct amount for parking, for garages, for the petrol, for an annual registration tax for every car, and remove the unfair taxes on public bus transport, then maybe we will see a change. Today, the bus passenger is paying more taxes proportionately than the car user. If we look at the two-wheeler explosion in South Asia and Southeast Asia, it has changed transportation in the world. No western country has ever experienced this, so their transportation models don’t work here, because what’s happening here is something very new in the last 20-25 years. A person can own a two-wheeler, which does 100 km to the litre, can be parked anywhere, and is incredibly convenient. However, the critical point is that it costs about 70 paisa/km to run it, and therefore, that pegs your public transportation fare. In South Asia and Southeast Asia now, we cannot run public transportation at a fare which is higher than the cost of running a two-wheeler. That puts a lot of constraints on public transport pricing. So we have to think carefully — what is the most efficient and economical way of running a public transport system? How do you bring the prices down, of the vehicle, of the staff, of running it and so on, so that you can come as close to that margin?
RN: In a country with a young population like India, where everyone wants their freedom of movement, how do we resolve these tensions without having a completely gridlocked future?
RB: Give them cars. Let people have cars, let there be traffic jams, because it means there will be pressure on the government to build more roads, flyovers, monorails, and subways. It may take years, but if we don’t provide people with personal transportation, they won’t have anything and will continue to suffer.
DM: 40% of the population is under 18, which means that 40% of the population is not allowed to drive, and a lot of people over 70 can’t drive. So about 50% of the population can’t drive, and we forget half the population all the time. Their aspiration is to be free of their parents. They are in a concentration camp called the home, then they’re in a concentration camp called the school, where they’re not allowed to do what they like. Even the trip to the school or the trip to the playground, they’re under the tutelage of their parents or their teachers. We have to give them freedom.
RN: With the question of pollution and clean fuels, what impact does the issue of transportation have on our air quality? Is there something we should be doing, policy-wise to safeguard against pollution?
DM: As far as the vehicle manufacturers are concerned, most vehicles which are going to be manufactured are going to be following international norms. We’re lucky that our two-wheeler norms are the toughest in the world. We also have three-wheeler taxis, which are one of the most innovative urban vehicles produced in the world. It carries the same number of people as a large car, but it consumes one-third the space of the road, and doesn’t wear out the road. Vehicles like three-wheelers must be encouraged, ones that are similar in size and weight, and are more efficient and comfortable. They are the ideal future of urban transport. One of the things people don’t understand is that public transport does not become popular in a city unless its taxi system is affordable and efficient, because they are complimentary. For example, a middle-class family’s need for a second car occurs because they can’t use public transport. We need to institutionalise better taxi services, because when you can’t use it because it’s raining or you’re sick, you have to use a personal mode of transport. So taxis are very important, and we need to remove restrictions on three-wheelers and taxis.
RB: In the last 20 years, we have decreased polluting by 90%. In terms of three-wheelers, they should have steering wheels, and we can easily bring in an auto vehicle with a steering wheel. Ultimately, I think a three-wheeler will move towards a small four-wheeler, whether it’s a Nano, which is coming out, or something similar later on.
RN: If there’s a constraint at all for the private sector that manufactures vehicles, it’s that the road infrastructure is not there. How can we work with the government to improve our public infrastructure?
DM: If we look at modern cities in the last 10-15 years, they’ve realised the folly of having very wide and elevated roads inside the city. There is not a single city in Europe, Japan, or the US, where elevated roads have been made in the last 10 years. We have to be very careful because all those cities which have very wide roads inside the city have high death rates. For example, Tehran has a death rate which is five times more than Delhi because it has very wide roads in the city. We’ll have to start looking around at what suits us in the 21st century. When we have elevated roads, it destroys the neighbourhood. So we’ll have to think about what kind of a city we want for people.
RB: Although the central and state government builds roads, the private sector is also building roads all over the country. And that’s what I would call that public-private partnership as well. Of course, we’ll find new and innovative solutions which will suit India. But while the West may have many bad things, there are other good things there to learn from, so I don’t share the view that we shouldn’t model ourselves after them. Yes, they’ve made mistakes, but we won’t make the same mistakes. That’s what India is going to be. And with our youth, better governance, and public-private partnership, I think the potential for India is immense. There’s no reason why this country can’t be a great nation which every Indian can be proud of.