Monday, 27 May 2013

It’s time planners did some jugaad on rural public transport

On the face of it, the Supreme Court order of May 15 directing all states to ensure that jugaad vehicles  do not ply unless they are registered with the regional transport authorities and have third party insurance needs to be welcomed.
Jugaad vehicles are those makeshift, rickety contraptions powered by irrigation pump motors that pass for public transport in many rural areas of north India. It doesn’t require a Supreme Court order to make one realise that these are extremely risky to the life and limb of its passengers. The Court’s order will have the effect of getting them off the roads.
That’s great from the point of view of public safety, but has anyone spared a thought for those who willingly clamber on to these? Why would people knowingly get into patently obvious death-traps? They do so only because there are no alternatives for them. Affordable public transport  is practically non-existent in the areas where the jugaads operate.
The jugaad passengers are those at the bottom of the pyramid, who may not possess even a cycle. The jugaad offers the only means of getting from point A to point B, and those points will be from home to work and back. Not getting on to a jugaad could mean having to forsake a day’s wage. As for the risk of injury or death, that is to be left to fate. The Supreme Court order will leave them stranded.
Is this article, then, a plea to let these death traps stay? Not at all. It merely seeks to question the practicality of implementation of the Supreme Court order, given the complete lack of alternatives in rural areas.
It is not as if these jugaad vehicles were off the official radar till now. In July 2007, the Union Roads Ministry had sent out a circular to all states that jugaads fall under the definition of ‘motor vehicle’ in the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988. Therefore, they would need to be registered, get a number plate and insurance. Getting registered would mean adhering to certain quality standards, which the jugaads would not have been able to do.
If, therefore, in 2013, the Supreme Court has to issue another directive to states, it shows that governments have not been able to deal with the ‘menace’, as the Court termed these vehicles, in these past six years.  Action has been taken against them, but they are soon back on the roads after greasing a few palms.
The continued existence of jugaads is nothing but a damning indictment of the state of rural public transport. According to the report of the Working Group on Road Transport for the Twelfth Plan, less than one-third of the nearly six lakh inhabited villages are serviced by the State Road Transport Undertakings. Is there any discussion at all on this, with the kind of urgency and seriousness that urban public transport gets (it is another matter that despite all the attention, urban public transport is also in a mess)?
Servicing the rural market will be difficult, since it will not be as lucrative as the urban one. But rural India is changing – rising income levels and growing opportunities mean that people are mobile and want mobility solutions. It is up to both politicians and administrators to work out solutions to this difficult market. Otherwise, people will be compelled to take whatever sub-optimal solution is on hand.
One only has to look at a somewhat similar situation in Delhi, where the public transport system is in shambles. There are around 5,000 buses on the road, far short of the required 11,000. (Incidentally, this 11,000 requirement was set by the Supreme Court in 2001; Delhi’s population has multiplied since then.) For the middle class, the gap is filled by ‘chartered buses’ (private tourist buses meant to be hired by a group of people from one point to another, but which pick up and drop passengers just like public buses).
For the lower income group, the only option to an unreliable public bus service is an illegal one. Delhi’s transport department started a Gramin Seva, meant for Delhi’s rural areas which do not offer profitable routes for a full-fledged bus service. The nine-seater Gramin Seva vehicles are now, however, a common sight on Delhi’s arterial roads, catering to the low-income population, in complete violation of their permit conditions. They are dangerously overcrowded and are driven recklessly.
The only saving grace is that these are branded vehicles and not a cannibalised set of wheels like the jugaads. There is no dearth of passengers for the Gramin Seva because the section it caters to cannot afford auto-rickshaws or chartered buses. There is the Metro, but the reach is not as extensive as that of the Gramin Seva. Action is taken against these vehicles but a mixture of political clout and bribes ensure that they are back on the road again.
Delhi’s school children are also transported in extremely unsafe conditions. They are crammed into Maruti vans, with children sitting on the front seat with the driver without seat belts. Or they travel in cycle rickshaws where a wooden seat which juts out on both sides of the rickshaw is attached. These are children of middle class parents who would be willing to pay for a reliable bus service if it were available. The Maruti vans are routinely challaned but they too get back on the roads the very next day. The demand ensures that they do.
If, in the capital city, limited choice makes it impossible to enforce safe transport standards, one can imagine the situation in far-flung rural areas, where there is no choice worth the name.
Maybe, because of the sanctity of the Supreme Court order, state governments will take jugaad vehicles off rural roads. But if they don’t take steps simultaneously to address the unmet demand for rural public transport, things will be back to square one. The Indian jugaad spirit will only replace the current lot of vehicles with some other means of transport, which could be more unsafe. They will continue till another Supreme Court order some years down the line.
So long as there is demand to ensure that earnings more than make up for the bribes paid, such services – whether Gramin Sevas in Delhi or jugaads in the rural areas – will continue.
That is the bitter truth.

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