That was the title of the Nobel Memorial Seminar convened by 'Volvo Buses', yesterday (26th Oct) at the Leela, Bangalore.
On a subject like that, it was inevitable that I had to raise the question of private participation in providing the bus services, ending the monopoly of BMTC, today's lone government service provider. And, that's exactly what I did when I got an opportunity during the interaction session.
During the main session, at least two of the panelists, Mr R K Misra and Ms Seetalakshmi (Eidtor, City, ToI) had highlighted the short-comings in the services of BMTC. Mr Misra had specifically talked about the poor information flow from the BMTC, whether from their website or wherever, and Ms Seetalakshmi had talked about the non-provision of night services, particularly for the last mile connectivity, which was adversely affecting their staff in a big way.
I elaborated further stating that, even granting that BMTC's services had improved in the recent past, there are serious short-comings, as the two panelists had already mentioned, and more about which can be seen on the blog titled "Why I gave up on BMTC?" (amongst others) on PRAJA, and which are coming in the way of people 'making public transport their first choice'. I went on to add that, whether in telecom, airlines or whichever service that had been opened out to competition from the private sector, the performance of the government player had improved tremendously, and therefore, in order for the BMTC to get its act together to address the shortcomings, wouldn't it also be advisable to usher in competition? I also cited my pleasant experience of travelling to Udupi and back by VRL's (Vijayanand Transport Service) Volvo buses, just the past week, and of their overall professionalism in going about their job, asking further as to why such players can't be invited to undertake providing services like for the last mile connectivity, which any way, the BMTC is not doing. I ended asking, over and above everything else, how can monopolies continue in today's world.
The question was directed at the lone government representative on the dias, Mr Shankarlinge Gowda, Principal Secretary, Transport. His response was quite on expected lines. He began by citing his bad experience with private players in Mexico. I intervened from the floor saying "you don't have to go that far; if you want to use such examples, there's the 'blueline' of Delhi, and there are more in our very backyard". What I wanted to add, but couldn't, at that stage, was "you tie their hands behind their backs using all kinds of tools like the outmoded 'Contract Carriage Act', etc, making for a totally sloping playing field in the government operators' favour, and then you label the private players as 'dangerous' and what not".
Later, over dinner, I did get to to interact with Mr Gowda, and when I put across my views as such, adding further that the present position was totally unfair, and given a level playing field, the private players will make the difference to 'making public transport the first choice', he quite readily admitted to it.
Very clearly, therefore, it is not as if the IAS officers, being the brilliant minds that they generally are, aren't aware of the actual positions. But, for various reasons (largely of their own making, I'll venture to add), they choose to carry on the government's bluff, at least in public. And, since, such seminars generally do not allow for rebuttals in the open, the officers get away with such stances, leading unfortunately to the positions getting perpetuated. Well, at least, now there's a PRAJA to say it all.
What was most surprising was the Transport Commissioner, Mr Bhaskar Rao,'s comments from the floor. He was lamenting the non-provision of sufficient subsidies by the government for the various government bus service providers. Over dinner, when I got to ask him why subsidies should be limited to bus services alone, and not extended to power/ water supplies, higher education, health services, and even air-conditioning in hot climates like in Bellary, Gulbarga, (as some 'Socialists' had demanded at a public seminar), etc, all harking back to the Soviet era, he hadn't much to say. Well, actually, I am not too surprised by Mr Rao's stance, given his none-too-illustrious tenure as the Transport Commissioner, as evidenced by the myriad comments on PRAJA.
Apart from the above, our very own Pranav got to make a short presentation on PRAJA as the vehicle for interaction between citizens, government and the industry in helping to arrive at consensus on the ways to move forward on various issues; Mr R K Misra and Ms Seetalakshmi spoke about the futility of the present road widening pursuits; Mr Ashwin Mahesh spoke of the need for giving due importance to bus services, which without doubt are the most cost effective of public transport solutions; Mr Aroon Raman, Chairman, CII Karnataka, spoke about the need for BMTC to improve the marketing of its services.
Mr Syed Zameer Pasha (BMTC, MD), expectedly made all kinds of claims, including of the VOLVO services now 'breaking even' (mind you - not profit-making as was sought to be projected through press releases; and, even here, I feel, they are just taking operational costs into consideration). Mr Ulf Gustaffson, of VOLVO, spoke of new developments on the 'hybrid' front.
Well, as far as I am concerned, I got another opportunity to project the urgency for bringing professionalism into the vital public bus services sector, through its opening up to organised private sector players.