Erasing double-deckers is just another step in making transport undemocratic
Anti people, pro-car, anti-public transport policies are at the root of Mumbai’s traffic crisis.
During my recent conversation with Rinki Roy Bhattacharya, daughter of the famous film director Bimal Roy, she recalled that the idea of Bimal Roy productions was born in a BEST bus in Mumbai in 1951. Hrishikesh Mukherjee was on the bus along with Bimal Roy going to Roy’s house in Malad after watching the famous Japanese film Rashomon at Eros. The discussion began when Hrishikesh said why can’t we make films like these? Soon the company was born and two years later Do Bigha Zamin won Filmfare awards and much international acclaim. It was a double-decker bus.
We have every reason to feel nostalgic for these buses because the authorities have been insensitively phasing them out while London is proud of these buses, increasing their numbers and these are almost a national symbol for Britain. Memories of most Mumbaikars are closely connected with BEST buses, particularly double-deckers. Unfortunately, our policies have resulted in reducing the number of buses over the years while there is a big increase in the number of private vehicles.
I have been travelling by BEST buses and local trains in Mumbai for the last 50 years. Because of my frugal lifestyle, I have enough savings to buy a car but I have refused to buy one all these years and at the age of 77 now I can manage very well. People behave as if we don’t have taxies. Ola, Uber is a good option if you are too feeble to go by public transport. The car is mainly a status symbol, it can be useful at times but one can easily manage without it. Anti people, pro-car, anti-public transport policies are at the root of Mumbai’s traffic crisis.
I am part of a purely voluntary group 'Aamchi Mumbai Aamchi BEST' which seeks to create more awareness on the issue while we spend money from our own pockets. As part of our programme, we invited noted film director Saeed Mirza and his wife Jennifer. Both fondly recalled that their love blossomed inside the BEST bus in the 1970s when they travelled from Colaba to Bombay Central. So there is so much nostalgia. The most popular double-decker bus route is 123 which covers so many landmarks of Mumbai including R.C. Church, Afghan Church, Sassoon dock, Museum, Hutatma Chowk, most importantly Marine drive, then Wilson college, Nana Chowk and Tardeo. There is nothing like breathing fresh air and having the wind in the hair from the upper deck.
But we need to go beyond nostalgia because the very survival of the BEST bus system in its present form is now threatened and our freedom of movement is severely restricted while the rich are becoming more mobile.
The Metro rail system is being projected as a great symbol of modernity and a solution but when it starts it will be at the expense of our freedom to travel. Now for example one now has more freedom to travel from Bandra to Dadar, the bus is more convenient and one chooses the bus. But when the Metro comes, they will force us to go to Bandra station, take a Metro there and again we have to take another mode of transport from Dadar station. And problems are going to multiply.
Metro is monumentally expensive while bus operation requires very little capital, yet Metro is being ruthlessly imposed. It is a disaster, I have seen it in Jaipur and Lucknow, it has also destroyed the historical character of those cities. Metro is deeply tied with the promotion of the real estate lobby, they expect to make a lot of money by building on the Metro route. This will only add to the city’s congestion.
Despite Metro, Delhi’s congestion has increased because there is also a big increase in the number of private cars and the authorities have no courage to take on the automobile lobby, in fact, every indication is that the government is in league with the lobby.
Another reason why the bus is or can be a much more easy and pleasant form of transport than a Metro. Normally, it is much easier to reach the bus stop from your home unless you are in a far-flung suburb with poor bus connectivity. It is not easy to reach a Metro station, there is a heavy security check, it is more costly, buying a ticket can be quite time consuming, one has to walk a lot even after you are inside a Metro station.
On the other hand, in the same time, you would have covered a lot of distance by a bus while the person going by Metro may not have begun the journey.
Metro is all right for very long-distance journeys but most of our journeys, as several studies show, are for short distances. Besides, one gets a much better view of street life from a bus than either from the monorail which has proved a disaster or from a Metro where it would be very dull when underground, no view of the outside world at all. I have experienced all this in India and abroad. I made a careful observation during my visit to London two years ago. Despite a vast underground train network, it has a very large number of buses going over long distances, many of them all through the night. Here our authorities want to unwisely reduce long distances buses and make them merely feeder buses to the Metro stations. London has managed to reduce congestion by reducing access to private cars and greatly increasing the number of buses.
The main problem is much of the political and bureaucratic class is totally unaware of the latest democratic transport trends in the West. Besides, Covid has completely transformed the transport scenario in many cities. Metro is now much less relevant. All great cities are giving more space for walking and cycling because of Covid. Our Central government has issued guidelines for similar policies but the States do not care and the Centre itself is not very serious, it is also obsessed with the Metro. For authorities there is much more money to be made through Metro than through people-friendly solutions, these cost little or nothing and so there is much less scope for corruption.
Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist who worked for the Times of India and is the author of the book, Traffic in the Era of Climate Change: Walking, Cycling, Public Transport Need Priority
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