Delhi's bus privatization experiment

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Excerpts from a 2007 paper about details of Delhi's city bus privatization process is reproduced below :


The green signal for the privatization of the public buses in Delhi was given in 1992. That year, Delhi became the first city in India to introduce private buses on such a large scale. It was also decided that the private buses would be directly under the administrative control of state transport department of the Delhi administration. By simply being allowed to avail either a stage carriage or a contract carriage permit, any individual operator was eligible to ply a private bus in the city. Individual operators, under various schemes like graduate scheme, SC/ST scheme, ex-servicemen scheme, suvidha scheme and so on, were encouraged to apply for these permits.3 Thus began the era of the Redline bus in Delhi which, with hindsight, one can label as the earliest prototype of today’s Blueline. Soon enough, the Redlines proved themselves to be not only a menace to traffic, with fast and reckless driving, but also gave Delhi a steady death toll of pedestrians and cyclists. Not unsurprisingly, the ensuring public outrage forced the government to call off the Redline scheme. But what should have led to a decisive change of perspective and policy in the management of public transport became instead a simple change of colour. The Bluelines thus were presented as the solution, without exorcising in either spirit or substance the disturbing ghost of the Redlines.

In 1996, the Delhi government attempted a further refinement of the privatization model, which they termed as ‘under DTC kilometre scheme’. The plan was to now forge a public-private partnership; the essential aim being to enforce a level of discipline amongst the disorderly ranks of the many Blueline entrepreneurs, who were now operating across a number of bus routes in the capital. The ‘under DTC kilometre scheme’, was intended to subject the Blueline buses to the operational discipline of the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC). Thus, as part of this new public-private partnership, the Bluelines were expected to follow the DTC timetable and have a DTC conductor (ticket collector) on board, with only the drivers in the employ of the bus owners. Further, the bus owners holding the requisite permit would get a fixed amount depending on the distance covered by the bus in a day. With these changes, the Delhi administration presumed that the scheme would be self-sustaining and require no subsidy. However, the kilometre scheme rapidly broke down, the partnership discontinued by early 2002, and the privately operated Blueline buses were released as an unchecked fearsome force onto the roads of Delhi.

In 2002, the Delhi administration once again sought to tinker with the transport plan with measures intended to be even more radical than those previously taken by the government. The plan, titled ‘Strategy for Deregulated Sectoral Operation of Delhi’s Stage Carriage Public Transport System’, argued that there was a need to further enlarge the scope of the ‘private sector’ in the existing public transport system by introducing ‘a scheme for augmenting the bus fleet …through corporate houses and big operators.’ Clearly, the Delhi administration, as early as 2002, had already begun to introduce corporate profit to regulate public transport in Delhi. This despite the fact that it was only too evident that both the Redlines and the Bluelines had turned dangerous for the commuters in Delhi precisely because of the attempts to privatize and run them on the principle of unchecked profit.

The plan of 2002 was widely criticized, especially by the innumerable small time bus entrepreneurs, who clearly were going to be the first victims of the entry of large capital. While big fish eating small fish is the general trend in processes for capitalist accumulation, the Delhi administration, as an added bonus to corporate profit in the public transport sector, even decided to sink the fishing boat itself so that there would be no check on the fattened big fish.

The brief account of the introduction of private buses in Delhi shows that the present crises of Blueline buses is being essentially sought to be cured by a more relentless commercialization/privatization of transport. The new twist this time round, however, could be that any added gain in safety from the ‘high capacity’ premium buses would be balanced by the fresh problems of access. That is, a large number of the poorer sections of the working population of Delhi will now have to pay higher fares for their safety and travel or be forced to risk travel on perhaps cheaper but even more rickety and dangerous private buses, whose owners will be even more voracious in their appetite for money as they will be constantly squeezed by the big transport players.

One can already envision how the problem of transport access is likely to take shape. The ‘high capacity’ buses are expected to charge high fares because the government would not provide any subsidy, a policy already outlined in the National Urban Transport Policy of 2006. The policy document unambiguously states that ‘the basic principle in financing public transport systems would be that the government should provide the infrastructure but the users (direct and indirect within the city) must pay for the operating costs and the rolling stock.’

Clearly, public transport in Delhi is moving rapidly towards its tryst with full-fledged corporate led privatization. For those making the decisions, it doesn’t seem to matter that the experience with profitable transport has been a chilling race with death. Since 1991, the mass public transport logic on the ground has basically been created to push small bus entrepreneurs to embrace desperate and fatal practices: they have to race for money to fill their buses to the brim with hapless commuters and cut corners with safety regulations. A vast chain of corrupt practices have developed in which traffic police and transport officials have been paid to look the other way instead of checking violations. Finally, roads are now increasingly crowded by the middle class that is apathetic to bus commuters because it drives cars acquired through loans.

In the original scheme of things, in Road Transport Corporation Act 1950, the rationale for mass public transport in the country was to facilitate social and economic development by offering cheaper travel, linking the hinterland with urban centres, providing subsidized service to the poor and students, better passenger amenities and well-organized maintenance. The commercialization of Delhi’s bus service has not only defeated the above but clearly makes the whole question of privatization suspect in terms of realizing goals such as safety, efficiency and affordability.

Thus, the recent attempts to solely blame ‘errant drivers’ is inadequate, if not fallacious. These ‘errant drivers’ have been made possible by the logic of public transport privatization; they are the result not the cause for turning buses into killers. And unless the monster of unchecked profit, whether by small players or corporates, remains the mainstay of the transport planning, Delhi’s roads will be unsafe and the body count will rise. The meaningful debate should be on developing the means to revive and reconfigure a sustainable notion of mass transport as a public good that is regulated by carefully designed norms for efficiency, safety and affordability.