I was in Kochi on Monday, the 17th Jan. After I finished the personal work that I had gone there for, I called up Mr Vivek Mathai of Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR), the people who had organised the Bus Day in Kochi on Dec 18th. Between us, we fixed up to meet next morning at 10 AM in their office.
Since I was going to be meeting the people who had organised the Bus Day, I myself chose to take the bus, in spite of the two cars being readily available to me at my brother's home on Diwan's Road, where I was residing (And, this was not the first time I was taking the bus in Kochi. I have always maintained that the Kochi bus services were good, and have readily availed them whenever an occasion arose - check this). I walked up to Govt Girls High School stop, a distance of some 500 M, and, immediately on reaching the place, I got a bus. And, even though it was the peak hour of 9.30 in the morning, the bus was not too badly crowded (though I had to stand), the frequency of services being so good.
The CPPR office is located at Elamkulam, some 5 Km up Sahodaran Ayyappan road from where I caught the bus, for which the conductor gave me a ticket for Rs 4, along with the change for the Rs 10 note that I had proferred. On reaching the Valanjambalam junction, some 200 M from where I got on, the bus got held up for close to 10 minutes. Just beyond the junction is the South over-bridge, and it being not wide enough to manage the present day rush-hour traffic, the police was manually turning into into a 'one-way at a time' road, allowing more time for in-coming traffic in the mornings, and outgoing traffic in the evenings, which was fair enough. But, the curious part was that, when opening up for the up-traffic, they were first allowing all the private vehicles (cars and two-wheelers) to go, only after which were they allowing the buses to move.
The bus eventually moved on to the next stop, viz Manorama junction, just beyond the over-bridge. Many people got off there, and I managed to get a seat, though, the bus filled up once again with the people boarding. Now, if anyone thought what happened at the earlier junction was curious, what followed at the next junction, a half km away, was nothing short of shocking. A 100M stretch beyind this junction is a bit narrow, and consequently, it has been turned into a 'car priority lane' (for upward traffic only) during peak hours, with the buses having to take a 300M detour to join back at the Kadavanthra junction, beyond the narrow stretch. So, the 'priority lane' idea, that we are trying to promote in Namma Bengaluru, is already in practice in Kochi, but with a reversal of priorities. And, the irony of it all is that it is happening in Marxist dominated Kerala. (Talking about this later, Vivek stated that similar is the case at the Kacheripadi junction on the other main artery, linking the inner city to the National Highway)
The next stop was at Elamkulam, where I got off, and with the help of directions from Vivek, over phone, I walked up to their CPPR office. The notable thing here again was the poor state of the foot-paths (or, whatever, there was of it), a feature shared with Namma Bengaluru, in spite of the larger percentage of trips made using buses here (and, consequently, by walk).
CPPR is headed by Mr Dhanuraj, a native of Kochi, who, after mastering in Physics at IISc, Bangalore, worked in the IT field for a while, switching then to Economics, and later doing an MBA. During the over one hour discussions we had, we re-discovered the smallness of the world, with our knowing many people in common, as also the like-mindedness in our approaches to a more sustainable life-style, particularly in cities. They are very conscious of a negative tag the term NGO generally carries, and consequently, they have deliberately taken on the form of a company, sustaining their activities through a lot of out-sourced research work, and field studies, simultaneously.
The 'bus day' event organised by CPPR was quite a success, with the support from the private operators being pretty good, though there wasn't that much of enthusiasm from the govt-owned KSRTC (K here standing for Kerala). The KSRTC has come on the scene recently, firstly with a few AC buses (VOLVO) linking the airport (22 km from the city), followed by a few more along the main arteries, and now by non-AC buses (brand new), termed 'Tiru-Kochi'. The AC buses appear to be well patronised, though frequency of services is a bit of a problem. The Tiru-Kochi services, which charge the same rate as the private buses, appear headed the namma 356 way (check this), bunched together and near empty ( I was trailing two of them, one behind the other, on a busy stretch, during the peak hour), with the crew more interested in completing the tasks assigned, unlike their private sector counterparts, who have a stake in patronising custom.
The bane of the bus services (privately owned) in Kochi is very plainly on account of the government's license-permit raaj, which does not allow for entry of big players. If a more liberal regime is put in place, Kochi can perhaps provide a model for the rest of the country, since the competitive culture is prevailing there already.
After a gap of nearly 33 years, the Kochi Corporation has recently elected a Congress Council, and Mr Dhanuraj was hoping to set up a dialogue between the Council and a set of active citizens that he is in regular touch with. The idea of PRAJA as the platform of the upper house quite interested him, and he will be exploring the possibility of setting up something similar in Kochi. I expressed fullest support from PRAJA in all their endeavours.
PS: Mr Vivek Mathai is 2nd from left, and Mr Dhanuraj is 4th from left resply in the picture