Chasing the holy grail of sustainable transport


Unless there is public outrage against transportation problems in Mumbai, and a display of vision, courage and leadership from the government to address these issues, sustainable transport in the city will remain a holy grail, writes Rishi Aggarwal.

As India urbanises, the one issue which has really been haunting cities is that of transportation. It is an issue which affects everyone (and this has to be emphasised) first hand. Cities cannot perform at their optimal capacity without a good transport infrastructure in place and this is a matter of significant concern for the economic growth of the country since most economic activity is now concentrated in urban agglomerations.

The lasting image and talking point for anybody who has travelled to other countries is the almost seamless experience one encounters with any transport system there. And the lasting image of anybody travelling to India is of the horrible experience in moving around. The quality of transport is a big contributor to the quality of life of people and hence needs to be discussed and acted upon. The kind of experience you get while commuting to your place of work or back home, or when you go to see a movie or shop or a trip to the park is important and cannot be dealt with casually.

Agencies working at cross purposes

The past decade has seen a number of good policies and schemes to improve transportation but the outcome leaves much to be desired. Either the policies are not implemented in spirit and there is cherry picking by the decision makers or it is the case of too little too late. Whatever good is supplied gets swamped by the enormous pent up demand.

The National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP) 2006, Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) and the requirement to make Comprehensive Mobility Plans have been the hallmark of what we have to offer ourselves in the past decade.

Since the outcome is poor it is now time to think less in terms of budgets and the technical solutions, and do some introspection whether we even have what it takes to give outcomes. Are we as a society and more specifically the various arms of the government competent to understand the transport requirements of our cities and provide them here and now, rather than only keep discussing all that needs to be done?

Last year in December, I had raised my concern and annoyance at a workshop as a precursor to the Urban Mobility in India held in Delhi. The workshop had the same subjects, the same speakers and the same examples of success from around the world. My anguish which I shared with the participants was that when will we as a country move to a stage where at such workshops we will have Indian city managers come and share their successes for others in the country to emulate? Is it the European Union where the Scandinavian countries are doing exemplary work to wean themselves away from automobile centric transport policy, infrastructure and giving a singular focus on mass transport and non-motorised transport or it is the Latin American Countries for their successful Bus Rapid Transport Systems (BRTS)? In the case of Mumbai, the Comprehensive Transport Survey and its recommendations have been the centre, though what should have been the focus is how different agencies are continuously working at cross purposes due to ego and political hassles while 12 million residents of Mumbai suffer everyday.

Running of institutions need a radical change

Far too many people believe that good transport policy and infrastructure are technical issues, while there is no proportionate interest in working on the governance and delivery systems which decide on the final outcomes. Forget governance, what good is it knowing principles of sustainable transport and all the jargons associated if the people whose lives are meant to be improved are themselves just not interested in joining hands for change?

I worked for a two year term at EMBARQ the sustainable transport programme of World Resources Institute where I found myself continuously at odds with many colleagues who were all trained in some aspect or the other of transport planning. Unless you are not competent in influencing government thinking and social mindset, all resources spent on technical people are waste of money in my opinion. Even if there a few good people within decision making unless the way our institutions are run does not go through a radical change things will be wasteful.

Politicians care a damn and commuters are passive

It saddens me to see the great disservice Mumbai as a city is doing to one of the finest public bus services in the South Asian sub-continent. The institution is nebulous in its functioning, seems constantly in the cross hairs of the SSBJP (Shiv Sena – Bharatiya Janata Party) and Congress political brownie points fight and, investments towards its improvement are held up in stupid arguments even as the city has Rs. 9000 crores for a Coast Road and more to waste.

Today crucial decisions regarding transportation in cities are held hostage by politicians, bureaucrats and solution providers whose views are guided by very narrow spectrum of thinking.

But the decision makers – the politicians and the bureaucrats – are only one side of the story. What really puzzles me is the commuters who make do with such poor responses every single day. Even after so many years, I am left puzzled and disturbed when I find the people of Mumbai completely unmoved by the number of instances in daily commute where improvement is required.

Whether it is those travelling in the Mumbai suburban trains or those who never step out of the comfort of their cars or those for whom the public bus service BEST is a lifeline or those who walk short distances for regular errands or leisure everybody in the city is short changed. The city is not short of money and its municipal corporation is one of the richest. If it wants more money then there are lenders willing to extend financial support. What Mumbai really lacks is people with a sense of ownership and integrity and a passion for excellence.

No hope unless there is public outrage

It is more than a decade now that I have been involved and having a ring side view of all the key authorities which impact transport planning and traffic management in Mumbai. The view really is not good and a decade down the line even the most basic issues like having a unified transport planning authority for the city are yet to see the light of the day; even the groundwork is yet to be done. New generations have entered the work force and started using the same sclerotic transport infrastructure and, older ones have faded away and everybody goes through the same issues. The current state of affairs leaves me confident that unless there is significant public outrage and participation and some display of courage and leadership, the situation will be exactly the same even in 2030. In India we have learnt to muddle through it all.

Sustainable transport for Mumbai will remain a holy grail till the time there is some deep introspection by Mumbai’s commuters and a firm resolution that the existing status quo will no longer be tolerated. Following from there, is a lot of hard work.


Rishi Aggarwal

The writer is an environmental activist and a Research Fellow at Observer Research Foundation where he convenes the Mumbai Transport Forum. His book “The Futility of Aam Aadmi Party versus the Promise of Active Citizenship” was released in April 2014.