Want Less Pollution? Bring More Buses!

Prasanth Aby Thomas
Published: November 2016

Much has been said about the pollution levels in Indian cities. The recent gimmicks aside, it’s time the government began to consider this issue seriously.

Early this year, the Arvind Kejriwal government in Delhi decided to tackle an issue that has been casting its shadow across the city – pollution. It decided to bring in an experimental rule of allowing odd and even numbered cars in the city on alternate days. Unlike most government plans that usually take years to transfer from paper to reality, the Delhi government’s move was done at the drop of a hat. Much was talked about it, even at the international level. Even if no one was sure of its benefit, the sheer peculiarity of the rule got everyone’s attention. Delhiites, on their part, mostly obeyed the rule and played along, knowing very well that it was only for 15 days.

According to media reports, pollution accounts for the fifth highest toll of lives and seventh biggest illness burden in India, according to the Global Burden of Diseases report released couple of years back. A lot of this can be attributed to the burning of cooking fuels, but in cities the diesel and petrol cars make the issue even worse.

After the experiment though, data showed that there wasn’t much difference in the total pollution levels. Even with some leeway to the weather conditions during the period, the odd-even policy had not had even half the effect that the government would have wanted. The US Embassy’s air quality monitor read “hazardous”, while the Delhi government’s System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research noted the air quality as “very poor”.

So the experiment had failed to get the intended results. What it did though, was reduce traffic on the roads. Those who were allowed to drive were relieved to see more space on the roads, something that is nothing short of a miracle in India.

All this brings us to just one conclusion. The government is ignoring the elephant in the room. Why are Indians hell-bent on buying their own cars? Why are car loans a hot commodity in the country? Do all of us really enjoy driving through the chaotic traffic day in and day out?

The solution is so simple that you might be tempted to think politicians had overseen it due to their love for large-scale projects. What Delhi, or any other city in India, needs is better public transportation that can take people to and from their work places. At present, there are limited buses that are often too crowded, and a metro that only connects certain parts of the city.

pollution-qWe are a large country with a humongous population. Let’s face it, we need ten times the buses that any developed Western country needs. We need suburban trains that will run on time, and run several times during peak hours to take people who are living on the fringes of the city to work.

There have been several efforts to encourage the use of public transport in the cities. Governments themselves have planned campaigns with colourful posters and ads, touting the ease-of-use of a bus. But the bitter truth is none of these have made a positive impact on the system. The number of private cars continue to go up and buses continue to be crowded and inefficient.

Some reports indicate that the Delhi government has plans for a 20-point agenda which will see the implementation of video surveillance cameras, common mobility card and e-ticketing system. Plans to add 3,000 buses are also on the cards. All this is fine, but it will not make any difference without even more buses that can run on schedule.

For a common man to rely on the bus system, he has to be sure that he can get from point A to point B at the intended time in a bus that offers basic comfort. Right now, getting a bus is a hit and miss in most Indian cities, with no clear understanding of how many buses are required on a particular route and how often. Often one can see several buses plying the same route running together, at the same time.

The Central Government has come up with plans to build several smart cities across the nation. While these look so colourful on paper, the question remains how smart these cities will be and how far it will go in solving some of the basic problems that cities face. Public transport is one of the basic problems and only if the government solves this issue will a lot of others be solved.

There is only one answer to India’s public transport problem. Privatization. The more we rely on government funds to bring in more buses, the less we solve the problem. Our railway system is a clear example of how poorly managed a public-funded transport system can be. No one is responsible as it belongs to no one and everyone.

There are those who raise the fear that privatization would lead to more costs for the traveller. The truth is that a slight rise in the travel costs are not as big a problem as not having a transport system at all. The popularity of Volvo air conditioned buses in our cities will bear witness to this.

Of course, the government will have the role of a moderator in ensuring the companies maintain reasonable prices. We don’t need ticket prices to be dirt cheap, but we expect to get what we pay for.

Much hope is pinned on the smart city projects for development in various sectors. It is imperative that the government recognizes public transport as a key area and implement changes. Only then can it find an answer to a lot of other issues.