Almost every city in India is being choked today with traffic. There has been an automobile revolution since the economy was opened up and infestation of automobiles in Indian roads has progressively increased to an alarming extent. While before 1991 only a few thousand vehicles used to be manufactured, that number went up to 3.9 million in 2011. Almost all major producers have descended on the country to establish manufacturing facilities. Despite a claimed slow-down in off-take in the succeeding years a few more lakh vehicles must have been added in 2012 and 2013.
People had to take recourse to personal vehicles for want of adequate, decent and dependable public transport. With generous help from banks the numbers of four and two wheelers saw an exponential growth swamping all urban centres with motor vehicles. Traffic jams have become commonplace in bigger towns and have also been occurring in even smaller towns.
Always tardy in developing infrastructure, the country was utterly unprepared to deal with this surge in number vehicles. It has been the same all over, whether in a metro or II or III tier cities or for that matter, even in a mofussil town. The existing roads were unable to cope with the burgeoning traffic. Apart from want of infrastructure or, in some cases, even lack of it the cultural factors have also affected smooth movement of traffic. Governance being weak in almost every sphere, it has impacted traffic management as well. Added to perfunctory traffic management is the lack of discipline and self-restraint of commuters – whether driving or driven in plush Jaguar or riding on a lowly Vespa scooter. Everyone wants to go ahead leaving every other person behind. The frenzied traffic ends up in numerous accidents, often fatal. About 140,000 died in India in road accidents
A most undesirable fall out of this excessive growth in the number of vehicles and the resultant chaos on the streets is deprivation of cyclists of their rights to use even a narrow slice of the road that they used to hitherto feel comfortable in. There is always a dread of somebody hitting one from behind – as happened not too long ago to the well-known environmentalist Sunita Narain. Likewise, pedestrians have seemingly been banished from the roads as coming out for even their constitutional is virtually suicidal. Either the sidewalks are just not there or have been appropriated by shopkeepers and casual purveyors of sundry goods forcing walkers on to the roads that are fraught.
In many metros and other cities informal organisations have cropped up to once again popularise bicycles. The Delhi Metro has come up with a “rent-a-bike” system and it is proving popular. Such an initiative was taken in Paris too by its Mayor where a more sophisticated “public-bike initiative” has come up that allows sharing of bikes provided by the government or its agencies. The system, after a faltering start, caught on with the people and bicycles have become a popular mode of transport. The initiative has now spread to numerous other cities in Europe and America.
India, perhaps, is not yet fully ready for such an initiative. The government, however, seems to realise the seriousness of the problem and, hence, Doordarshan, the government telecasting agency, has taken the initiative to encourage people to walk, cycle or use public transport. Door Darshan (DD), with the support of Ministry of Urban Development, has launched this February a TV series on “Sustainable Transport” anchored by the film actor and social activist Rahul Bose. This is part of the Ministry’s campaign “Traffic? Ab bus karo” (traffic? Stop it now) that has been initiated with the objective of promoting sustainable transport in India. The name has a pun – suggesting to commuters to use buses.
The TV series telecast on DD (News) is in four episodes – the first builds up the case for sustainable transport, the second is on cycling, the third on walking and the fourth is centred on the use of public transport. Eminent environmentalist Sunita Narain is also among the panellists. Through videos, the TV campaign shows the example of Delhi where pedestrians and cyclists have to risk their lives while crossing roads and Kolkata where cycling has been banned from 174 major roads as they allegedly caused traffic jams. As a result of the ban poorer people in Kolkata were the worst hit. Stressing that the need of the hour is to promote cycles and eco-friendly modes of transport, one of the videos says that Kolkata seems to be moving in the opposite direction by promoting polluting vehicles.
Nanded Township in Maharashtra has come in for some appreciation. Here the authorities took inspiration from Netherlands where cycling became a national passion as a result of a social movement against numerous child-deaths in road accidents in 1970s. The change in Nanded occurred in 2005 when the roads were redesigned to provide separate lanes for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists – a measure that has, perhaps, not been adopted anywhere else in the country
But, it seems the left hand of the government does not know what the right hand is up to. The efforts of Door Darshan and the Ministry of Urban Development may get undone by the last budget proposals of the Minister of Finance. His budget has effected a hefty cut on the excise duties on cars in an effort to fuel demand as lately the sales had slackened and the companies piled up inventories. True, in early 1990s largely riding on the growth of the automobile industry the Indian economy picked up which eventually made the country sixth largest producer of automobiles. The automobile penetration in the population has since increased appreciably (about 15 per thousand), though it is nowhere near several industrialized countries. One, however, shudders to imagine the conditions in the country if, given the state of our infrastructure, it reached the level of US or Italy where the figures are more than 400 per thousand. It is indeed an inopportune moment to encourage more people to buy vehicles.
Cheaper cars would mean more cars on the roads, more congestion, longer jams, higher oil import bills and more carbon in the atmosphere (with 40% of vehicles being diesel-driven). Any amount of widening of roads or creation of parking facilities is not going to improve matters. World over this has been the experience since these are basically short term measures. The newly-created spaces are soon filled up and the roads start choking again. The Finance Ministry, therefore, seems to have caused a huge setback to a sensible campaign of its sister ministry of Urban Development.
Hopefully, the well-conceived campaign will not suffer and will soldier on against this and other odds. Currently the campaign is supposed to run for a month but, one imagines, the episodes would be frequently repeated to bring home to the viewers the virtues of using public transport, cycling and using one’s own legs.