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Something is better than nothing, the Madras High Court noted, and ordered the Tamil Nadu government to procure 499 low-floor buses suitable for use by people with disabilities in cities and suburbs. With its order of April 18, the Madras High Court has for now brought to a close the prolonged litigation by the disabled seeking to compel the Tamil Nadu government to buy only low-floor buses for Chennai, its suburbs and for other cities.
The order by acting Chief Justice T Raja and Justice D Bharatha Chakravarthy in Vaishnavi Jayakumar vs State of Tamil Nadu allows the Institute of Road Transport (IRT) to go ahead with its planned procurement of high floor buses of floor height 900 mm, but confine the number to 950 buses.
The court has also directed the State government to ensure that future procurement of buses should conform to the requirements of law, notably the Harmonised Guidelines and Standards for Universal Accessibility in India, 2021, of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs. Also, the transport crews should be trained and sensitised to show patience so that people with disabilities and those using wheelchairs are able to use the buses.
Addressing one of the arguments used by the Tamil Nadu government to avoid procuring 100% low floor buses, the court said future developments including the design and reconstruction, repair or improvement of bus stops should be done with the goal of enabling the disabled to use the transport facility
Addressing one of the arguments used by the Tamil Nadu government to avoid procuring 100% low floor buses, the court said future developments including the design and reconstruction, repair or improvement of bus stops should be done with the goal of enabling the disabled to use the transport facility.
Moreover, the exception given to buy a large number of high floor buses [which are also hostile to the elderly, women and children who find it difficult to board and alight] given to the Tamil Nadu government is only for the present, and future purchases should conform to the accessibility code. This is on the lines of the Supreme Court’s order given in a similar case in the National Capital Territory (Delhi). Automobile manufacturers [such as Ashok Leyland which dominates supply to Tamil Nadu transport undertakings] should be informed that there will be a market in the future only for low-floor buses.
A tender for the 157 additional low-floor buses should be floated in two weeks from the date of the order, and a committee with representatives not just from the government, IRT and MTC but also one from a disabled-people’s organisation should be formed to identify the routes and timings for operation of low-floor buses.
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One of the major improvements to access public transport, which is a mobile phone app that provides real-time passenger information on buses in operation and arrival timings at all bus stops should be made available in all major Tamil Nadu cities, such as Coimbatore, Tiruchi and Madurai, in addition to Chennai where the Chennai Bus app for Android is in early stages of operation. Chennai’s MTC has purchased the app solution provided by Chalo.
Although Tamil Nadu is one of the more advanced states in terms of public transport development, Chennai and other major cities have suffered from slow bus expansion. Chennai’s bus fleet at about 3,500 catering to a metropolitan area spread across four districts has remained static for several years, and the ratio of bus passengers to overall trips has been falling over the years.
In response to the litigation, MTC and the Tamil Nadu government cited incompatible design of roads, badly designed speed breakers, unsuitable bus stops, and higher purchase cost and maintenance as reasons for not favouring low-floor buses. For decades, passenger bus transport in India has been using lorry chassis from Ashok Leyland and Tata Motors with a floor height meant for transport of goods rather than people. The crudely designed bus bodies with a floor height of even 1,200 mm has deterred many people from using public buses.
A tender for the 157 additional low-floor buses should be floated in two weeks from the date of the order, and a committee with representatives not just from the government, IRT and MTC but also one from a disabled-people’s organisation should be formed to identify the routes and timings for operation of low-floor buses
Some transport experts also blame legacy manufacturers of buses for exerting undue influence over state governments and forming special interests that have prevented modernisation of bus design and comfort. In Tamil Nadu, the official limitation on the usage of a public bus by a transport corporation is now set at nine years, although many exceed that number. There is also low emphasis on maintenance. Internationally, the life of an urban bus built to high standards is in excess of 20 years.
On the introduction of free travel for women in ordinary class buses in Tamil Nadu, those opposed to the “freebie” cited the absence of quality buses and low fleet strength as problems that would get aggravated due to the free travel. This argument ignores the subsidy that the government transfers to the transport corporations to make up for the loss.
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While state governments cite high cost as a barrier to modernisation of public transport and for cheaper fares, the global discussion is centred around climate finance that should be funding such measures. Transport is a major source of carbon dioxide emissions that drives global warming. Tamil Nadu has not exploited this possibility to its advantage, although it is one of the first to start a dedicated climate change wing in the Environment department. A combination of fuel, parking and property levies are frequently-used revenue sources to promote public transport internationally, but special interests block these options in Tamil Nadu.
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