Swades IV - Last Episode

Progress@the cost of...?

At Vinzhar village we waited for the S.T. bus to take us back to Pune. We were advised by locals to take a six-seater. This would be our second six-seater on the trip. I am not too happy about these smoke-monsters which have made Pune a 'black hole'. People love them since getting from Point A to Point B is a higher priority than the environment. A billion people have to commute don't they? Jared Diamond's Collapse (perhaps the most influential book that I read this year) mentions: 'Of the six factors that determine a society's continued growth or collapse, the most crucial one is its response to its enviromental problems.' Whether rich or poor the environment is not too high on an Indian's list of priorities. After having spent two days in one of the most beautiful places in India that is being increasingly encroached upon by the city I wonder how long it will all last.

A citizen of a country like the USA has an ecological footprint of 10.3 and current estimate for India is 0.8 and for China is 1.5. The world simply cannot sustain India and China trying to achieve First World standards which means achieving levels of ecological footprints that are 6-7 times greater(assuming the avg. one for a developed country) than their present ones. It is a fact that in the name of progress India and China are doing a lot of ecological damage. Will we be able to develop and still not lose the most beautiful parts of our country?
I thought about this as we bumped along in the smoke spewing six-seater. It must be made clear that the word 'six' in 'six-seater' is a mere symbol which can stand for any positive integer. When you felt that now the driver cannot not possibly fit more people, he invites a few more and manages to stuff them in. I felt a little guilty as our three huge rucksacks might have cost him at least 4-5 seats!!! In the vehicle there were interesting conversations. A villager complained loudly how the damn government was now only allowing a limited number of six-seaters to ply on each route. You need to have a valid permit for the route to carry passengers. Another typical aspect of India - don't solve the problem but simply create the illusion of solving it and create another avenue for kickbacks. The six-seaters were a solution to the problem of providing cheap, reliable and frequent transport service. Six-seaters are a great short-term fix but are not enviromentally friendly and have now become a problem. The driver was driving like a complete maniac and yet the passengers were feeling quite cozy and completely at home in the overpacked vehicle.

Then we got onto an S.T at the highway that would take us to Swargate. My brother got chatting with some dude inside the driver's cabin who then invited us both in. He worked in the S.T. office and was a great source of practical advice and a philosopher of sorts. I was curious to hear his take on six-seaters and the private buses. Quite naturally, he had lots of things to say, here are some of his interesting observations and views.
1) The S.T. will never pack people like sardines for profit. People will gladly suffer the private operators: A lady in 6 seater will not mind almost sitting in your lap or if you accidentally brushed against her, but if such a thing happens in an S.T. she will scream and there will a huge hue and cry. (The pic above attests to situation in six-seaters).
2) There is no insurance or compensation in case there is an accident. For some reason if the private bus breaks down the operator will just shrug and you will have to walk. In case of the S.T. you will get another bus to pick you up or even a refund. (Some private operators do provide breakdown service. The important point is that it is not mandatory and it is few and far in between.)
3) There is no job security or benefits for employees. He pointed to the driver of our bus and said, "Look at him, he was a driver with a private bus company but he left them for this S.T. driver's job. Why?". As it turns out private companies might provide service but are not great for employees. Yes, the pay in the S.T. might be a little less but is still worth it. (Privatization seems to be great for the man with the big bucks, but not for people who work in it).

Maybe the S.T. guy had some his facts wrong but after my experience so far I don't think they were too far from the truth. Private transport can be great if there is:
- fair amount of competition,
- permits that are strictly enforced,
- there are minimum standards for passenger safety,
- employee benefits and accountability in case of mishaps.

For now these remain pipe dreams. Under the pretext of making things private the government is shirking its duties and responsibilities and things are getting out of control. Privatization can really work but there needs to be strong regulation(not control), well-laid long term progress plans and well-defined guidelines for operation. Many of my generation seem to be completely entranced by the word 'privatization' and think that it is some sort of silver bullet. A private company looks for profit and its interests may be in conflict with what might better for everybody in the long term. Privatisation is often good but not always. It is interesting to note that affluent always seem to be the champions of it since it allows them to do what they want. Heedless privatisation without proper guidelines or regulation is not going to much better in the long run. I am certain that 'laissez-faire' capitalism is not the answer for India and perhaps for any country.


Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you on this one. I am a big proponent of privatization still but I believe it has to be with rules. But rules should make sense. FOr instance, instead of regulating the number of 6 seaters on each route, which is only a way on increasing corruption, they should legislate that all 6 seaters should run on CNG.Now they don't pollute so you can let them proliferate. This would correct the problem at its root.
As to your other point, regarding development and its cost. I feel that India must develop but it can follow its own model rather than ape the US. I feel a better country to 'ape' would be Japan as they have a higher population density. So for instance, no point in following the US model of great freeways, 1 car per person and lousy public transport. 1 car per person in India would cause the country to sink into the Indian ocean!!! So while we should invest in roads (dont get me wrong there) I feel we should follow models such as great rail system, monorail / metro in every large city (note Delhi pollution and traffic problems are greatly reduced after the introduction of the metro), CNG bus service etc etc. Infact, I would support a rule to ban cars in certain downtown areas like mainstreet. So one can park at a certain distance away and then use a public transport system geared for that small area. But whats the easiest way of doing all this efficiently and with minimum corruption? Give large contracts to big private players. Thats the american way!

hirak said...

For a city like Pune it is ridiculous to have so many cars and two-wheelers on the narrow streets.
Despite all logic owning a car for many is a sign that they have arrived.

My servant spends almost 30% of her salary in commuting on the inefficiently run P.M.T. Just think if the PMT was run twice as more efficiently then there would be atleast 15% more disposable income for her, not to mention time saved due to shorter commute times.

If the PMT would listen I have an idea: create two classes of PMT buses - one the normal one and one slightly expensive 'First Class'. It will keep a lot of bikes and cars off the streets.
I believe that people are willing to be environmentally conscious if it is a little trouble but not if it is a bit too damned inconvenient.

Javed said...

All i'd like to add is that no matter what transport system you have for the public, it's not going to be worth it unless you start looking at things in totality. First the roads need to be repaired (Right now!!)then the administration needs to swing into action and start enforcing on and educating the people to understand traffic rules i.e. it's not sensible to overtake from any goddamn way you like or about signalling while turning or not using the road as your uncle's courtyard etc. Only then will it make sense to improve the buses & other transport facilities. Once this is done i bet the no of two wheelers or for that matter even four wheelers would reduce.

Wavefunction said...

I agree with Javed. Traffic rules really need to be enforced and followed, and roads would have to be repaired; that's very basic and important. But for that, we need to have policemen who are honest and who would enforce really big fines for breaking them, so that we ourselves are not tempted to break them. In turn, that would need the govt to pay them some respectable minimum salary every month. How will all that come about? Unfortunately, there are some areas where only the govt can bring about progress.
The real heart rending thing is that we have the biggest railway system in the world and one of the most efficient bus systems in Mumbai, and yet its effects are hardly felt because of the simply overwhelming high population and the absolute disregard for maintenance of these services (and why should that be surprising with Laloo as the railway minister?). In terms of volume, we have the largest- and one of the most terrible- public distribution systems in the world.
About privatization, the need and demand for it has become the greatest precisely when the confounded commies are in the coalition. Also, why would the government relieve their officials who are in charge of these ramshackle services, when these officials can enjoy scores of bribes only when the services remain ramshackle? The key to their corrupt existence is the continued existence of problems and bad services. So it won't be easy for privatization to suddenly step in.
Look at the shameless, utterly thick-skinned audacity with which the MSEB has yet again started load shedding, this time without even a timetable, and the even greater shamlessness with which they blatantly announce that this state of affairs is going to continue for the 'next two or three' years.
Yes, there do seem to be positive solutions related to privatization etc. but I think that unless a bare minimum, a bottom scraping bare minimum, level of honesty and transperancy is introduced in our government, as someone said, 'there are very many ways to make a mess out of it'.

Ajay said...

Something I've been meaning to post on, but a convincing enough argument has been difficult to construct - laissez faire capitalism and libertarian principles work best in a society where law & order is strong. Without strong judicial and police/law enforcement reform, this will be very tough in India.

Law-abiding citizens/businesses are proven to be stupid and naive and savvy businesses which can 'manage' the system do better (required reading: the rise of Reliance).

I still feel laissez faire capitalism is the best system, but real law enforcement has to come first.