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Can offering free city bus service reduce the traffic and pollution woes in India?

Believe it or not, 29 countries around the world offer free public transport to their citizens in some cities. The list includes both, developed as well as developing nations. Just like other developing countries, why shouldn’t the Indian government consider implementing the free city bus service scheme on a trial basis in a few cities?

In the year 2014, Estonia, a small country located in North Eastern Europe became the first nation to introduce free public transport for its citizens living in the national capital city, Tallinn. Since May this year, Estonia offers the same service throughout the country.

Currently, cities in Wales, Poland, Ukraine, Turkey, Thailand, Taiwan, Sweden, Spain, Slovenia, Scotland, Russia, Norway, Malaysia, Italy, Iceland, Greece, France, Finland, England, Denmark, Czech Republic, China, Canada, Bulgaria, the United States, Brazil, Belgium, and Australia offer free public transport. Most of these countries provide the same to cut air pollution and reduce traffic congestion.

“What are the possible benefits of offering free city bus service?”

Reducing travel costs, lower emissions, decreasing traffic and travel time, pleasant air, and reduced expenditure on healthcare are the upsides that can be achieved if public transport is offered free of charge. Free bus service also increases the economic activities in the city. Studies conducted in the nations mentioned above have pointed out that people travel more often to visit their favorite cinema hall, restaurants, as well as bars that are located far away from their residence if there’s no traveling cost involved. It also takes care of the car parking issue faced by many cities. People show the willingness to walk even for fifteen minutes to reach the nearest bus stop.

“How can the govt recover their lost revenue?”

The nations that offer high-class public transport free of cost to its citizens recover their expenditure from multiple revenue streams. Levying additional taxes on high-end cars, using the national environment funds, charging additional transport cess on annual property taxes, etc. are some of the measures adopted by the countries mentioned above.

In India, Shiv Sena happens to be the first political party that had urged the authorities to implement a similar initiative in Pune. During the 2017 civic polls in Pune, the party had made its plan public as a part of their election manifesto.

“The calculation is simple. On an average, every family has two to three bikes, and members spend a total of around Rs 9,000 on petrol every month. The overall annual cost of fuel for such family is more than one lakh eight thousand rupees. Plus, they also need to shell out money for maintenance of their vehicles. The air pollution and road-accidental deaths in cities like Pune are already a cause of concern. So, we proposed a plan to improve public transport and make it free for citizens. To recover the lost revenue, we suggested that an additional pollution cess of Rs 2,000 per annum can be added to the property tax that citizens are paying. Plus, commercial exploitation of public transport body PMPML’s properties, as well as ads on buses and bus-stops, can help in fetching more money than the current levels. The municipal corporation can help by allotting money to the public transport body by tapping environmental funds intended to be spent on environmental causes. Such an initiative would motivate people to use public bus service,” said Shiv Sena Pune spokesperson Sham Deshpande while sharing details about their proposed scheme.

“Noteworthy initiatives in India”

Some tier 1 and tier 2 cities in India run a free bus pass scheme for school students, disabled persons, war widows, sportspersons, and journalists who have accreditation. The municipal corporations allot funds to their public transport bodies in their annual budgets for these passes. Schemes have proved extremely useful for school and college students.

The state of Maharashtra has some excellent schemes in place when it comes to the State Transport (ST). Immediately after taking over as the state’s minister for Transport, Shiv Sena leader Diwakar Raote had promised the citizens that he would come up with schemes to offer free bus passes to the poor section of the society. During the last four years, Raote has introduced free ST bus passes for selected war widows, girls up to class 12 in rural areas, free passes for boys studying in 12th standard, as well as ITI course students across the state.  The minister believes that offering free bus passes to school and college going girls would help in promoting girl-education in rural areas.

“Except for Bangalore, all Indian cities have an inadequate number of buses”

Most parts of India do not have a good metro/suburban rail network. So, administrators rely on their bus transport networks. Studies suggest that people from a financially weaker section of the society as well as a small percentage of persons who do not own a vehicle opt for public transport buses. In spite of this, just around one percent of the total number of vehicles sold in India happens to be buses.

Urban planning specialists suggest that the ratio of buses and the population needs to be at least 400 buses for 10 lakh people. However, most of the Indian cities (except for the metropolises) have less than 140 buses in place for 10 lakh citizens.

In cities like Pune, people travel like stuffed animals in these buses. The number of passengers sitting in the vehicles is often beyond the RTO’s permissible limits. Bus stops lack cleanliness as there is no dedicated staff for even sweeping these areas on a daily basis. Vehicles do not ply as per their timetable and often break-down. Fares are among the highest, compared to other countries. Traveling in such buses is considered as something humiliating and troublesome.

In spite of an inadequate number of buses, most of the cities have cut back their plans to increase the number of vehicles. Modi Government has stopped the flow of funds offered to various towns for buying new buses under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. The Smart Cities Mission and AMRUT mission do not provide a dedicated budget for buying buses. Thus, before motivating citizens to use public transport, the state, central, as well as municipal corporations need to increase bus fleets.

“Political will is necessary”

“It would prove to be a great, path-breaking initiative. But the probability of success would increase if the center, state, and local bodies do it together, just like in the JNNURM Bus Funding Scheme run by the UPA Government. The central government can purchase the buses, while the state government, local bodies would take care of the bus maintenance, fuel, and salaries of the employees. Currently, besides the MSRTC’s ST (State Transport), there are around eight to ten public transport bodies that operate under various municipal corporations in Maharashtra.  All these transport bodies can be brought together under the transport ministry to make sure that every city has a sufficient number of buses. A separate IAS officer can be appointed to manage the same,” said MNS’s Secretary Irfan Shaikh who has worked as a member of Kalyan Dombivli Municipal Corporation’s Transport Committee.

According to Shaikh, most of the public transport bodies in Maharashtra are incurring losses anyway.  A new expenditure financing pattern, involving the use of cess, tax money instead of selling tickets to passengers might prove to be a revolutionary step. They can surely start such a scheme in certain cities like Delhi on an experimental basis.

Lobbying is not legal in India. However, most of the MLAs or MPs would agree that fuel pump owners, automobile companies, and even cab aggregators have lobbyists working for them. Their influence on bureaucrats and politicians is strong. Perhaps, this is the reason public transportation system remains poor in most parts of the country. Even a proposal for a free city bus service scheme would surely make them run for their money.

Nitten Gokhaley

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of AFTERNOON VOICE and AFTERNOON VOICE does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)

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