Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Villains from Blue Line

This was written in October 2003

Blue line buses could have killed about three people during the five minutes (certainly less than ten) that I was waiting at a red light at a traffic intersection yesterday. The intersection in question is the first off the flyover at IIT at Aurobindo market. All three people were drivers of cars that were crashing the red signal to U turn into the path of the oncoming green signal traffic, that the Blue Line buses were part off. There were five other jumpers during this period. The eight jumpers included two student age boys on bikes, one woman driver, three male owner driven cars, one chauffer driven (owner in the back seat) and one autorickshaw. All this at 5:30 pm on a Monday evening, mid-summer.

A conservative estimate would put the number of “jumpers” at about 20-25 an hour at the signal in question, virtually all through the day from 9 am to 11 pm. Assuming each jumper was fined a modest Rs 1000 for endangering a lot of lives including their own, the Aurobindo Market traffic intersection has revenue potential of about  Rs 300,000 per day. Such a revenue stream would justify permanent manning with remote controlled digital cameras with power back ups – the works.

Delhi has very high instances of road accidents and fatalities because of road accidents (over 2000 deaths a year). Traffic violation is a level playing field and completely secular sport in Delhi (I once travelled with a senior bureaucrat in his car, who instructed the driver to drive on the wrong side of a fairly busy road for about 200 metres). The only constraints to access on account of gender and caste is the ability to be in the driver’s seat of a vehicle (though you could be in back seat and instruct the driver). Under age kids and senior citizens participate with equal vigour.

As a dangerous sport (people die everyday), it is viewed with same restraint as mountaineering. Deaths and disabilities happen elsewhere, not here, to us.

However, three types of accidents bring about public outcry:

·         Night-time high impact crash featuring a truck/bus and high-profile passengers in a car. The villains here are, of course, the truck drivers who must have been driving rashly
·         High profile kids who drive badly after getting drunk at a party and kill street dwellers. This category provides exciting pixels for the electronic media including talk shows on “The Indian middle-class’s deteriorating values : is this because of globalization”
·         Blue Line buses

Rich spoilt kids and working class males (with no connections and political constituency on this count) make popular villains.

Of the three categories, Blue Line buses spend the most time commuting the road. The drivers function in an environment that encourages them to drive fast and increase passenger throughput. This is directly linked to the basis of their permits to operate services. (we’ll examine the schemes that encourage private operators to drive buses faster and with more passenger load at another time). Fixed route and time services that buses provide, means that buses spend more km and time on the road every day than any category of user. By this yardstick, buses should cause more accidents than any other type of vehicle on the Delhi roads. There is no statistical analysis that suggests that buses are more dangerous than other vehicles in Delhi given the relative km per day travelled. (airlines routinely track mortality risks on passenger km, not on number of aircrafts). My guess is that buses are no more culpable than other forms of transport. We’ve already established, albeit anecdotally, that there is a secular distribution of a “death wish” amongst Delhi’s road users.

The traffic police has and will lament about:

o   Shortage of staff to man every junction
o   Abuse of traffic cops powers by “connected” Delhi citizenry
o   Inadequate resources given the pressing needs for VIP movement

The government and will lament about:

o   Lack of fiscal resources to improve traffic enforcement
o   A few incidents should not be used to highlight bad traffic discipline

More ambitious politicians and civil society organizations will comment about the fiscal crunch being caused by anti-people policies of globalization, privatisation and liberalization promoted by the World Bank. For this group, if the Blue Lines at my neighbourhood intersection had notched up three more kills, we could just head straight to the World Bank office at Lodi Estate and arrest its senior executive.

Lets examine the traffic police laments. We’ve already established that given the level of traffic violations, traffic enforcement is a self-sustaining and profitable enterprise. In a country that can for the most part compile a census every ten years (of 1.2 billion people), and issue voter ID card to most of them within a year, lowering the boom on traffic violators and managing the logistics should be a walk in the park. Simply, the traffic police has to put together a business plan on traffic enforcement and borrow money from commercial banks to implement the plan. This would also help the banks who are running out of ideas on how to use all the money they have. Funding the traffic police would be more profitable than trying to telemarket the “nth no-collateral required” loan to the professional executive.

This also addresses the governments laments of funds. Though another win-win would be to tell the “blame the World Bank” gang to seek soft funding from the Bank for traffic improvement. This also gets the Bank off the hook for deteriorating traffic conditions in Delhi.

If there is a clear cut case of a business opportunity that will have good economic and social repercussions why isn’t it happening?

There are investment restrictions. The government (centre, state and civic) will have to agree as to who can invest if it isn’t them.
Pricing restrictions will be debated in the state legislature and Parliament. (Somehow Delhi’s woes merit Parliamentary debate from time-to-time as a national issue.)

Vested interests will oppose change.(This is sounding more and more like the economic reforms scenario).  Such vested interests include:

·         VIPs, who can claim unfair privileges and consider themselves above the traffic law,
·         Delhis affluent middle class, who feel free to reduce a four lane road into a single lane road, through gross double parking violations
·         Delhi’s youth, who like youth in many places, enjoy the thrill of breaking the law

All these categories have successfully negotiated their way out of spots
with the traffic beat cop and / or citizen concerned. Why deny themselves these several pleasurable moments of traffic violations (and getting ahead of the dumb law abiding idiots) for just a few incidents.

Those traffic cops who are corrupt, as the incremental revenue from proper enforcement will all go the government and not themselves. Better to keep traffic cops in short supply.

The Blue Line owners aren’t too worried. They run a business and cant afford to be distracted by such events. Plus, they know it’s a matter of time before some politician or his/ her alleged partner are murdered as part of some sleazy love triangle or business deal. Or better still the cricket team will get back on the road. They’re off the headlines then.

Enforcing traffic regulations will save lives, save several others from permanent disability, smoothen traffic flow and contribute to reducing pollution through better motor speeds and reduced traffic snarls. Enabling it to happen will require some reforms on the structures that are responsible for enforcement. The tools for enforcement in a transparent and legally acceptable manner already exist.

Well, its just another instance of a process of  reforms that have little to do with FDI, interest rates, WTO and globalization. It does have something to do with some elements of investments, pricing, management and technology.

But hey, why bother. Its easier to be able to influence and negotiate to identify contenders to take the blame, and gain a vote through the media than get into a fact based approach.

Lets get some more dope on the Blue Line drivers or better still, there’s this new sleazy story breaking in UP……. It sounds like more fun than trying to make Delhi’s roads safer for our families, friends and neighbours.  

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