Read Editorial with D2G – Ep 510

Read Editorial with D2G – Ep 510

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Urban visions: On need for policy reform

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With a clear focus on expansion of Metro Rail and bus services through Central funding, Budget 2021 has recognised a core component of urbanisation ( people move from rural areas to urban areas and it results in growth in the size of the urban population ). Comfortable, safe and affordable commuting ( to travel from home to work everyday ) has well-recognised multiplier effects for the economy and more generally for public health, although COVID-19 has had the perverse ( liking to behave in a way that is not acceptable or reasonable or that most people think is wrong ) effect of driving people away to the safety of personal car and two-wheeler bubbles.

There is little doubt that when the pandemic is under control, more people will return to clean and green mass mobility. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s announcement of Central funding of ₹1,957 crore, ₹63,246 crore and ₹14,788 crore for the Kochi, Chennai and Bengaluru Metro projects, respectively, gives these big cities greater certainty ( the state of being completely sure about something ) that they can meet targets.

Less certain, however, is the impact of the proposed ₹18,000 crore plan to augment ( to increase the amount, value, size, etc. of something ) public bus transport using a PPP model that will enable private sector players to finance, acquire, operate and maintain over 20,000 buses. India’s ratio of buses to population is a low 1.2 per 1,000 people, compared to 8.6 in Thailand and 6.5 in South Africa, although some States like Karnataka are well ahead of the national average, as per NITI Aayog data.

Licensed private urban bus services remain a politically sensitive topic in many States, where State monopolies ( the control of an industry or service by only one company; a type of goods or a service that is controlled in this way ) coexist ( to live or be together at the same time or in the same place as somebody/something ) with unregulated paratransit, and it will take a major effort to convince them that a bus renaissance ( rebirth ) is a good post-pandemic recovery strategy. The amended Motor Vehicles Act has provisions for the Centre to take the lead here.

The challenge of urbanisation goes beyond standalone interventions such as Metro and bus system grants. State governments, which retain effective control over urban development rather than city administrations, have failed to operationalise ( put into operation or use ) the umbrella authorities to regulate transport. Common mobility cards that would help citizens use bus, train and feeder ( a person or animal that eats a particular food or in a particular manner ) networks seamlessly were largely in pilot project mode even before the pandemic.

There is valid criticism ( the expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes ) that the existing paradigm ( a typical example or pattern of something; a pattern or model ) is one of “exclusionary urbanisation”, which makes Metro and bus services expensive for the majority, particularly for those forced to live in the suburbs due to housing costs, and sometimes making the per kilometre cost of using a two-wheeler more attractive.

Moreover, Census 2011 showed that the number of Census Towns, which are urban for census purposes but not named urban local bodies, grew tremendously over a decade. They lack access to funding, infrastructure and capacity to meet the needs of large populations even now.

Enhanced ambition, therefore, requires the Centre to work with State governments to integrate key areas with its transport vision, such as affordable inner-city housing, including rental projects, access to civic services and health care, and enhanced sustainability ( the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level ), greenery ( green foliage, growing plants, or vegetation ) and walkability. All these are covered by Central budgetary schemes for cities. Only integration can bring about inclusive urbanisation.

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