Thursday, November 22, 2012

How Mumbai missed the bus on public transport

Karthiks tweet made me finally write this thought out. 

Each time I visit Mumbai – I realize that the public transport scene has not changed in the last 12 odd years. By much. Mumbai incidentally was the first to introduce Air Conditioned buses – as early as the late 90s. But over the years, they have somehow not been able to crack the market for taking public transport upmarket. Unless you count Cool cabs. The trains have been a pain – each passing day it becomes more and more difficult to squeeze in. The buses – once the pride of India – are no longer as good - and thats a pity. I mean, BEST is a good service but it has not kept pace with the times.

This, despite the fact that the Mumbai mentality is a very public transport friendly one. Unless you are some super elite – you would have used public transport at many points in your life. I would think about 99% of Mumbai was used to public transport. Public transport (and I include autos, taxis here) was cheap, reliable and plentiful.Why I say this is because of the city we are comparing with.

Cut to Bangalore. 12 years ago, I was stranded at some place (the center of the city) looking at a bus to go to some other place (less than 10 kms away) at the unearthly hour of 730 pm. No buses. And BMTC well, was a lumbering sleeply bus company. As it is, those blue dabbas were generally slow, overcrowded and unpredictable. The people of Bangalore avoided getting into these buses unless they had a choice. Autos were (and continue to be) bad and unfriendly. There was no cab service worth its name.

And then R Ashoka happened. As did a few other things.That changed the face of both BMTC and KSRTC.

If you visited Mumbai in 2000 and 2012 – you will see a huge increase in vehicles on roads – a lot of those who used to use public transport shifted to using their own vehicles. The overall road scenario has improved, but public transport has not kept pace with demand. But someone who comes to Bangalore after 12 years will not recognize the city. At peak hours, BMTC floods the roads with its beautiful big red bus – the pride of its roads - the Volvos. And there is a bus every few minutes on the E-city, ITPL and Ring Road corridors - the big traffic corridors. And almost every bus is full. These buses are airconditioned and charge a premium for their ride (overall, public transport is more expensive than Mumbai). But they are fast, comfortable and plentiful. The last two points are usually the big reason people don’t want to dump their vehicles - you crack it and you get people off their high horses. The number of Volvos in Bangalore is perhaps higher than any city in the country. 

And I believe this is where Mumbai – missed the bus. AC services are few and far in between. And waiting for them just isn’t worth it. With the creaky train infrastructure which will remain that way until the Metro comes up – the BEST had a golden opportunity of going upmarket with AC buses and the like. Bangalore has successfully transitioned many users from bikes and cars to buses – simply by making its service more reliable, comfortable and plentiful.

Mumbai can still do it - the traffic jams in the city are just too unbearble and the city can pay as much, if not more than Bangalore. A bus corridor is perhaps all it takes. But thats for the city planners to decide.

Bangalore had quite a few things against it. A general public transport unfriendly populace. Bad roads. And a circular city. But BMTC has managed to convert each of these – and some of the recent road widening exercises have come in handy – into a winner for its bus service.

Apart from these – the cab scene in Bangalore is pretty good. Rickshaws are painful (though as compared to Delhi or Chennai they rock – as compared to Mumbai they suck). And the airport buses, well, they are a breeze...

(More on public transport here)
(Cross posted on Centre Right India)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Shiv Sena, Thackeray and some memories

As I turn on the TV every now and then today - the only thing I see is the 25 lakh odd people who have thronged to see Balasaheb Thackeray on his last journey. I see it on mute - since most of the commentary is unbearable. On my twitter timeline there is a certain section which is vocal in their admiration of the Shiv Sena - and another section which is vocal in their opposition to the Shiv Sena.

As a long time Mumbaikar I still retain a special place for Mumbai in my heart. After all that remains where I have spent the majority of my life. And the Shiv Sena was a large part of Mumbai. Shiv Sena was Mumbai - behind the so called spirit of Mumbai - a large hearted spirit that would stand by the city during any tragedy (and this has happened so many times - from floods to terrorist bombs to power failures) and a part of many a celebration from Ganesh Chathurthi to Govinda. And their vada pav stalls had the best vada pavs on offer.

The Shiv Sena incidentally had South Indians in their crosshairs during their formative years - yet - not once did we (and a considerable number of 'Madrasis' around us in our predominantly South Indian locality then) find ourselves in trouble. And this is the funny part. A lot of South Indians today are vocal supporters of the Shiv Sena. Why is this? The elite of Mumbai (and other parts of India) believe that the Shiv Sena is nothing but a lumpen force in Mumbai focusing on ghatis. But many in Mumbai believe that the Shiv Sena is among the good things that make Mumbai what it is.

Yes, the Shiv Sena has often indulged in violence - like ransacking offices of media or tearing a painting or two or banning a movie or book or digging up the Wankhede pitch (which I think was a service considering we intended to play against our terrorist friendly neighbour). A bandh that was not supported by the SS meant a normal day, but an SS supported bandh was an opportunity to play street cricket all day long. No other party could enforce a bandh as successfully as the SS - and people were pretty much scared to venture out - over the years, all it needed was a call for bandh and the rest would happen. .  

The Shiv Sena changed itself over the years. What started off as an anti-communist party with its roots in Marathi identity - Balasaheb was quick to spot the theme of resurgent Hinduism that broadened its appeal beyond Marathi identity politics. And this where most people believe the Shiv Sena played its part very well. I remember the 92-93 riots - after all we stayed indoors for a long time in those days watching the city from our terrace. Shiv Sena boards at shakas and other places were a source of information. And a lot of people believe that the Shiv Sena 'saved our asses' in those riots. And this where their pan-Hindu appeal widened.

And when the BJP-SS government came up in Maharashtra, they changed the face of Mumbai - with its 55 flyovers (most of which were constructed ahead of schedule), the starting of the Mumbai-Pune expressway. Post this government - all election promises in Mumbai were about development. And the way they went after the underworld in Mumbai - with the police being given a free hand to 'eliminate' gangsters in 'encounters' has remained a story that has been retold in many a movie. It is fair to say that the underworld has not recovered from that yet - though they might with the leftists going after the police officers rather than the gangsters.

They also ensured that a lot of places that the lot of places with 'English' names were named after Shivaji ( Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, Chhatrapati Shivaji museum) and the city itself became 'Mumbai' from 'Bombay'. A lot of flak was faced by the government and the SS over this, but SS stood its ground. (Much later did I realize that the opposition to renaming was as much an opposition to project the legacy of Shivaji as much an opposition to the SS - a longer story to be told for later.)

The so called liberals can rant and rave, but they dont see that the Shiv Sena is a part of Mumbai - that holds the city together. What direction it will take in future, I dont know, but I do hope it maintains its grassroots connections. So, well, as I watch Balasaheb on his last journey on TV - yes, he will remain a part of our minds. And in Mumbai, Indian and Hindu history for ever. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Election Commission to CAG


Once upon a time in India there was a Chief Election Commissioner. The name of the man was a certain, T.N.Seshan. T.N.Seshan was the man who took on politicians - left, right and center. He was a hero. A one man army, who took on the might of the collective politicians and won.

During his tenure, he successfully tackled many electoral malpractices. He was the one with the vision of having a voter id card for every citizen. In particular, he was one person who used the office and the position and tested its constitutional limits successfully.

As you might imagine, the then government did quite take kindly to this activism and sought to curtail his powers by appointing a three member body - two commissioners in addition to the Chief - so that all decisions can be taken by voting.

On the face of it, this is a great idea. However, once the government appoints two lackeys, the power of the Chief Commissioner who wants to implement the rules is curtailed because the two lackeys will always toe the government line.

History is in the process of being repeated. The CAG today, Vinod Rai is the equivalent of T.N.Seshan. He, like Seshan, has been villified by many a politician of the ruling combine - all for doing his duty fairly and criticising the government for doing the wrong things.

Yesterday, someone from the PMO blurted the intention of slowly making the CAG into a toothless tiger by this process.

There is nothing surprising about this. Congress has perfected the art of slowly diluting institutions. Be it appointing seasoned politicians in the office of governors (note Karnataka and Gujarat today), by appointing family retainers in key positions in the election commission - which are some of the more prominent examples, the Congress is slowly, but surely seeking to curtail any criticism of its scam ridden tenure.