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TN’s new deal for the mini bus needs key tweaks

After more than two decades of regulatory confusion, the Tamil Nadu government has come out with a draft new Comprehensive Mini Bus Scheme, 2024, to provide public transport connectivity in the far corners of the State. There is no segregation of rural and urban areas for the proposed services. The aim is to connect villages, hamlets and habitations with a population of 100 or more families directly by bus with a bus stand or railway terminal, hospital or educational institution.

The DMK government has pursued the mini bus scheme successfully in the past, through special schemes issued in 1997, 1999 and 2000 for various districts other than the Chennai Metropolitan Area. Today, such a public transport scheme has the bonus climate change effect of cutting carbon emissions and improving urban air quality. Mandating battery vehicles in urban centres under the scheme can be a force multiplier.

As of 2002, the Comptroller and Auditor General noted in its report that the State had issued 4,023 mini bus permits in 28 districts. The modified schemes, however, led to litigation over government orders to privatise some existing state-owned permits and to extend the route length to 25 km from 20 km. The government then decided not to pursue these proposals. A new scheme would be formulated, the High Court was informed in response to petitions.

With the 2024 Lok Sabha elections out of the way and the road ahead to the 2026 Tamil Nadu Assembly polls in sight, the State government has revived the plan for a comprehensive mini bus scheme, this time partly covering the Chennai Metropolitan Area but excluding the core of Chennai city. There are no limits to the number of permits that can be issued now or a minimum route length.

The DMK government has pursued the mini bus scheme successfully in the past, through special schemes issued in 1997, 1999 and 2000 for various districts other than the Chennai Metropolitan Area

The Home Department (Transport) has issued the draft notification, calling for comments from stakeholders.

Chennai shortchanged
Positive as it could be overall, and may help improve the district economies by promoting public transport, the Comprehensive Mini Bus Scheme of 2024 suffers from infirmities.

Chief among them is the inexplicable exclusion of seven zones of Greater Chennai Corporation – Tondiarpet, Royapuram, Thiru Vi Ka Nagar, Anna Nagar, Teynampet, Kodambakam and Adyar, while including several outlying and newly added zones –  Thiruvottiyur, Manali, Madhavaram, Ambattur, Valasarawakkam, Alandur, Perungudi and Sholinganallur.

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It is worth remembering that one of the key features of the mini bus scheme is that a new route must have 70% uncovered length and the rest in areas with existing bus coverage. The bus type defined in the draft notification also prescribes vehicle sizes that could range from share autos (7 seater) to regular mini buses (25 seater). There is no minimum route length, while the maximum is 25 km, adopting the 70:30 ratio for service.

The existing mini carriages are from another era, of rudimentary design. A new era calls for modern mini buses for cities and rural areas.

This clearly makes it possible to come up with new routes even in the core of Chennai that connect residential areas with existing bus stands, Metro stations and suburban train stations. Yet, the draft notification fails to look at the mobility deficit in core Chennai localities, where residents have to pay heavily for autorickshaws to travel to bus termini and rail stations. This last mile failure remains unaddressed.

There are other deficiencies in the draft scheme proposed by the Home Department. It does not incorporate legal requirements to make the newly permitted vehicles, especially those in the larger bus formats, conform to bus body code standards that are legally mandated by the Union government. These include the All India Standard 052 and AIS 153 and are meant to make them accessible to people with disability as much as other passengers.

The sudden release of the draft scheme for parts of Chennai calls into question the ongoing exercise by the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA), to come up with a Comprehensive Mobility Plan (CMP) for the city. It also does not take a comprehensive approach on the expanded Chennai Metropolitan Area (CMA), which now covers over 5,904 square km and extends to three neighbouring districts.

Thinking small on big problems
It is common knowledge that Chennai’s fragmented transport landscape is practically unregulated: Other than MTC, Chennai Metro and Suburban Rail, the other modes set their own fares, operate without specific permits as stage carriages and the government is unaware of the travel patterns in the city. Many share autos have been allowed to compete with MTC on lucrative routes, besides holding a virtual monopoly in the suburbs. Tens of thousands of share autos provide access to working professionals, especially in the suburbs, but they are not under any compulsion to provide service through a permit.

There are other deficiencies in the draft scheme proposed by the Home Department. It does not incorporate legal requirements to make the newly permitted vehicles, especially those in the larger bus formats, conform to bus body code standards that are legally mandated by the Union government

The draft notification for mini buses does not take into account this segment of operators, who should be asked to upgrade and come under a regulated framework. All new mini-bus routes must sport designated colours, issue electronic tickets, accept electronic passes through QR codes integrated with other modes and provide GPS information to enable transport information monitoring, although these requirements are not spelt out in the draft. Electronic monitoring is also required under the Nirbhaya ruling of the Supreme Court.

On a wider scale, the early experience with mini buses over 20 years ago, recorded by the CAG, shows that they could violate permit conditions, run truncated routes, operate to locations not covered by permits, and opt for shuttle trips only on high demand sectors. This is also seen in the unregulated share auto operations currently in Chennai.

Also Read: Chennaiites hit by MTC vacancies, ageing buses, poor integration

Why not new circular routes?
Moreover, the failure of MTC’s small bus scheme leading to gradual withdrawal on many routes is attributed to high staff costs per bus, bad design of vehicles and lower revenues. This gross error is the result of failure to estimate travel demand from residential areas to important locations such as bus, Metro and suburban rail stations, shopping districts, shopping malls, cinema theatres, hospitals, educational institutions and so on. Circular routes from these important locations covering residential areas would automatically generate demand.

Another major policy failure is the limited understanding of public expectations on travel quality. AC services have been ignored, although the entire Chennai Metro user base is attuned to air-conditioned travel. This is not hard to address. Several AC van models are in the market and investors would put in the funds under a scheme that invites them to start a service. MTC could be given the first right of refusal to operate such a scheme, but it cannot stop a new service from entering the sector. If cars have upgraded in quality and comfort, public transport too should match that.

The 1997 mini bus scheme was highly popular, but fell by the wayside due to repeated political shifts in Tamil Nadu. With a new comprehensive scheme, getting it right is key. In Chennai, the DMK government should provide a new deal by linking residential neighbourhoods with big transport termini, reducing everyday inflation for lakhs of people. Autorickshaws will remain the model of choice for those with limited time budgets and should have nothing against larger-format shared vehicles.

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