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Chennai’s bus operator Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) has a staggering 504 driver vacancies, 75 conductor vacancies and 246 technical positions unfilled as of May 2023, while the oldest bus in the fleet is an ancient 17.4 years, data obtained under the Right to Information Act shows.
The MTC recently emerged shaken from a prolonged litigation in the Madras High Court, as people with disabilities sought to assert their right to accessible buses under law (Sec. 41 of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 and the Harmonised Guidelines of the Union government), and wanted the bus corporation to procure only low floor buses that could accommodate wheelchair users.
This long-running battle ended with the MTC agreeing to make part of a new fleet of buses disabled-friendly, but not all buses, citing poor civic conditions in Tamil Nadu’s capital city – narrow roads, flooded subways, ongoing Chennai Metro construction – that prevented low-floor buses from being used on all routes.
It is telling that the government did not come forward to improve civic conditions, instead pleading with the court to allow conventional buses with 900 mm high entrance steps to be purchased, rather than 450 mm or a maximum of 650 mm. Buses with high entrance steps are hostile to the general user, particularly senior citizens, women and children, and are also illegal. As a concession to passengers with disabilities, the MTC agreed to buy a total of 342 buses with accessibility provisions, and operate them on select routes. Tenders for these are in process.
The government did not come forward to improve civic conditions, instead pleading with the court to allow conventional buses with 900 mm high entrance steps to be bought
The excuse given by the MTC in court was that disabled passengers could use a mobile app providing information on the arrival of these buses at a given stop in real time. The Corporation, in reply to this writer’s RTI petition, said that it does not have any plan to run low floor small buses (to provide connectivity to Metro stations, suburban areas and bus stand locations).
The DMK government under Chief Minister M.K. Stalin has dialled down on much anticipated reforms in the transport sector, although the Chennai transport regulator, CUMTA, has been operationalised and is conducting public opinion surveys with a focus on social media. The situation has also been complicated by the introduction of the popular free travel for women scheme, which requires a subsidy and non-farebox revenues to be augmented, both of which are not strong competencies for the MTC.
Metro work as excuse
The MTC has also taken shelter behind ongoing Chennai Metro works to avoid speedy reforms, citing the massive disruption in many parts of the core city such as Mylapore – Mandaveli, T. Nagar, IT Corridor, Porur – Poonamallee, Purasawalkam and parts of northwest Chennai towards Madhavaram.
In response to the RTI petition, the MTC has said thousands of services had not been run daily in many localities. The highest number of dropped services – described in official parlance as ‘not run’ – are in the depots of Central, Anna Nagar, Adyar, Ayanavaram and Perambur. The number of these ‘not run’ or dropped services for the first four months of this year are at a staggering 22,121 services in January, 20,165 in February, 21,795 in March, and 22,216 in April.
After the introduction of the small buses in Chennai, it was expected that passengers would have an alternative to expensive three-wheel autorickshaws which do not operate on metered fares. In the Madras High Court, the MTC provided a list of 74 routes where it said small buses were being run. But in response to the RTI petition, MTC said it operated 106 small buses as of May 2023, which translates into 1.4 buses per route, confirming that many small bus routes do not have even two buses to ply in the up and down directions. Effectively, the same bus does the up and then the down trip, at a frequency of an hour or so.
The DMK government has dialled down on much anticipated reforms in the transport sector and the MTC has taken shelter behind ongoing Chennai Metro works to avoid speedy reforms
Residential areas deprived
The gradual withdrawal of MTC bus routes from many residential areas that used to be catered to in the 1980s and 1990s when housing density was even lower, has created “public transport deserts” where people have to rely on costly autorickshaws or unregulated share auto vans which are not legal. The MTC cites lack of revenue to avoid running bus services in residential areas, while the existing and potential household transport spending is taken by unregulated share auto operators, who compete with the MTC in many places.
Roads in Chennai are regularly relaid to benefit owners of cars and two-wheelers at public expense, but expansion of MTC bus facility is cited as a loss-making proposition, ignoring the deprivation of citizens without cars who pay the taxes to relay roads. For bus route roads, the Greater Chennai Corporation budgeted Rs.881 crore in March this year. GCC does not immediately repair roads after cuts are made for cable, pipe laying, water supply repairs and so on, worsening their condition and damaging buses and other vehicles.
Chennai’s predicament is similar to the American philosophy of depressing public transport both in quality and quantity, in order to make personal choices such as cars and two-wheelers look more attractive. The only exception to this is the free travel for women being run with an outdated, inadequate junk fleet. But then, free universal bus travel also exists in the United States in some big cities.
The current approach of the DMK government is to cite extensive public consultations by the CMDA and CUMTA, holding the promise of augmentation of public transport in Chennai. However, the MTC has been pursuing its own course, tendering for regular buses, deciding route details, pulling out and putting in routes without transparency, and on occasion, ignoring decisions made by the Chief Minister’s grievance cell on provision of routes.
The State Transport Department has also not acted to regulate share autorickshaws which are eating into the MTC’s revenues. These vans could be regulated to run only between transport termini and residential areas as a last mile option, without impacting their current revenues. Conventional three-wheeled autorickshaw fare fixation also lies in limbo.
The Chennai Metro, which could launch its own feeder services under the amended Motor Vehicles Act of 2019 is hamstrung by the overall paralysis of transport policy. The cost of all this is being borne by the average Chennai passenger.
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