Saturday, September 19, 2015

Two bus systems roll under one roof, but not talking to each other!

There are two bus systems in Ahmedabad – one, the six-year-old bus rapid transit system aka ‘Janmarg’ and two, the six-decades-old AMTS run bus services popularly known as ‘red bus’. Both of these bus systems belong to the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation but they have different models of operations. AMTS is operated in a conventional municipal way by shared power between officials and politicians whereas a special purpose company owned by the government operates the BRTS. Both the systems operate parallel to each other – BRTS gets to use the special dedicated corridor where as the AMTS buses runs in the mixed traffic. AMTS carries about 8 lakhs passengers every day whereas BRTS carries about 1.3 lakhs. Both bus systems run competing with each other. They have separate management, different ticketing, different fare model, different bus stops and different way of reaching out to customers.

Cities around the world, which have efficient transport systems, work very hard at integrating various public transport modes rather than keeping them segregated. Integration of public transport modes means traveling across different public transport modes through one ticket, platform sharing, revenue sharing and bringing every public mode into one brand which people can identify with easily. More importantly, public transport integration is good for business! When two (public transit) companies start sharing the customers, their business gets multiplied. ‘Transport for London’ is one brand identity and it actively integrates various modes of transport – buses and express buses, light rail (DLR), heavy rail (metro or underground), suburban rail and even the boat service across Thames. One can travel across these modes using one ticket or smart card. Each system actively shares information about other systems and make the life of the public transit users comfortable. No wonder London’s transport system is one of the best in the world!

It is often difficult to get two different government agencies to talk to each other but when two entities are under one roof, integration should be easy. But it seems that it is not the case in Ahmedabad. Since the inception of the BRTS, an unnecessary schism is developed between two bus systems. BRTS was projected as an exclusive service whereas AMTS has suffered because of the lack of innovations, years of neglect and accumulation of vested interests. However, a slow process of ‘talking to each other’ seems to have started between AMTS and BRTS. Apparently,now 46 AMTS buses are going to be using about 4 BRTS corridors. But the use of the BRTS corridors by the AMTS buses is not the most useful way of integrating the two systems.

There is a need for a comprehensive strategy of integration between two bus systems in Ahmedabad. Both require continuing investments in planning, operations and maintenance. It is very difficult for the public transport to make profits but if a ‘smart’ business plan is shared between two systems then both can benefit from each other. This essentially requires ‘taking to each other’. And the biggest challenge in our cities is to get people-government-authorities to talk to each other. Keep talking to each other is the only way for public systems to be strengthened, well coordinated and integrated. Let us hope that we will soon see integrated ticketing, sharing of platforms, sharing of revenue and complimentary operations between these two ‘not talking’ bus systems in Ahmedabad.

(14th September, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

Monday, September 07, 2015

If blanket internet ban means peace, then silence means consent!

Cartoon by Xavier Bonilla 'Bonil'
Now it all looks like routine life but just a few days ago, the city was burning. One political agitation was mishandled and as a result, public properties were vandalised and the city was on the brink of total collapse of public life for a long time. Just in a couple of days, we saw misplaced agitations, governmental apathy and policy brutalities. The administration called the para-military forces swiftly and the city life did not take much time to normalise. As part of these events, there was a blanket ban on mobile internet – apparently, with an excuse of curtailing rumour mongering. And it is still puzzling, why was there a blanket ban on the mobile internet? 
There is a difference between temporary de-activation of social media sites and a blanket internet ban for a week. It might be advisable, if at all in some cases, to ban the social media temporarily at the times of riots in the city. But a blanket internet ban affects all internet operations, which are becoming common amongst all the user groups. Now a days, a lot of important transactions take place on the mobile internet like banking, tickets booking, searching for important information and even the state-supported ration shops use the mobile application based on internet. The blanket ban was extended for a week, making it impossible for the mobile internet users to do any transactions. 
But the excuse of curtailing rumour mongering or inflammatory new items, does not stand a close scrutiny. Social media sites were not the only sources of inflammatory contents and rumour mongering. Many more inflammatory stories were being broadcasted on some of the local TV channels. A word of caution to them would have been advisable. But instead the mobile internet ban was operationalised imagining it as a sole mode of spreading inflammatory material. There was not internet in 1984 or 2002 but still this country saw its worst riots. It was probably first time, a blanket ban on mobile internet was enforced. Surprisingly, the blanket ban on internet was not well-covered in the national media. And many local media stories made it only about how the youngsters are missing the social media instead of understanding the wider repercussions of the blanket internet ban. 
Do we even realize how the government has become used to intrude in the citizen’s life and how they have become used to censorship? A blanket ban on mobile internet amounts to internet censorship. Internet censorship is just another form of bullying and it is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime.Internet censorship in Gujarat reflected the lack of confidence of the state administration in itself. There is a real danger of the government getting used to internet censorship every now and then. During those days of the blanket internet ban, Gujarat has unfortunately joined some countries like China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
In many ways, internet is an anti-thesis to censorship. The internet users always find new ways of subverting the censorship authority’s orders. It is extremely important for a democratic society to protect this very nature of internet.

(7th September, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 3)

Living in ghettos of mind: segregated cities on caste & communal lines

“We don’t believe in all that” – one often hears this while discussing the caste-based or the communal politics in India.This self-righteous and a-political sounding lot goes further to claim how they believe in equality or meritocracy and how they are completely against caste-based reservation or caste-based politics. Very well, but people who oppose reservations based on ‘meritocracy’ arguments do not come out as strongly against the caste system itself. The idea of ‘caste’ is not based on any merits yet it is being practiced for thousands of years. The practices of caste system systematically excluded a major part of Indian population from acquiring any education, new skills or new sources of livelihood. Yet, the caste-based thinking prevails amongst the most educated and privileged section of the society. 
Unfortunately, ‘we don’t believe in caste system’ and ‘I am proud of being from my caste’ is often spoken in the same breath! Those who claim their belief in equality and meritocracy need to check, what drives their newfound love for equality. Is the conventional caste-based inequalities are not beneficial to them anymore?
Caste system is deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche and its direct implication is seen in our cities – small and big. Neighbourhoods dominated by a certain castes or sub-castes have been a unique feature of Indian cities since centuries – From Madurai to Varansi and from Ahmedabad to Kolkata. People who say that they do not believe in the caste system should check their own surroundings to figure out if they are living in the ghetto of their own tribe. This tribe is defined by ‘people like us’ and by othering the ‘others’. ‘People like us’ are people from the same caste or sub-caste or from the same religion. Ask the real estate agents in your city and they will tell you the advantages of belonging to a certain so-called higher castes. The buyers flag their caste while buying the property and the sellers gloat over the fact that the property is sold to ‘one of us’! Such attitudes result in making cities segregated on caste and communal lines.
So what is the problem with segregated cities on caste lines? Segregated cities create population groups, which are insulated from each other, and deep mistrust is cultivated between communities. Human beings are the species who have prospered by co-operating with other human beings for thousands of years. Openness and diversities are fertile grounds for innovations and social progress. Historically, whenever segregation and inequalities have taken over integration and equalities, the social progress has regressed. If we live in our own tribe then we are not taking full advantage of being in a city – melting pot of cultures, agglomeration of economies and congregation of multi-sectarian societies.

The issue of ‘caste’ needs to be dealt with politically and socially. It is not enough to say that lets put all these caste-based reservations behind and built a society based on meritocracy. It is more important to demonstrate how are you breaking the caste barriers – beginning with your own mind, your own surroundings. Many Eastern societies like China and Japan had their own systems of social hierarchies which they have put behind and embraced the modern ways. Globalization makes it impossible for modern societies to collapse in isolation unless the modern urban societies decide to live in ghettos of their own tribes. Living in one’s own tribe shows how deeply ingrained the caste considerations are. Then the arguments on equality or meritocracy sound quite hollow.

(24th August, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

Monday, August 17, 2015

Why free parking is entitlement but street vending is encroachment?

You must have seen people who push their way through the queues at the airport, people who honk indiscriminately at the moving vehicles in front, people who throw garbage out of moving cars, people who feel proud of making noise at the restaurants. These people have a great sense of entitlements and they have assumed that they deserve everything they can grab. They feel deeply threatened when their sense of entitlement is challenged. These are the people, who fight for parking spots and believe that it is the obligation of the city to provide space for their car wherever they need.

Parking spots are weirdly linked with the vehicle owner’s ego and the size of the ego is directly proportional to the size of the vehicle they drive. Many vehicles owners think, it is their birth right to get free parking every where. Free parking is usually haphazard parking, which not only obstructs the pedestrian movement but the moving vehicles on the streets. Most of the roads in our cities operate on half their capacity andparked vehicles occupy the other half. We keep making multi-storied parking buildings, which remain empty, but the parking on the streets is chaos.

Every large city in Gujarat and elsewhere requires a policy of paid parking on all their major roads. The international experience shows that the paid parking policies have magical effect of removing unnecessary parking from the streets. This goes a long way in opening up the pedestrian paths and smoothening the traffic flow. But to convert the free parking lots in all major roads into the paid parking lots is a very unpopular move. Because many car owners think that free parking is their entitlement that the government is supposed to provide. The government officials who move around in official vehicles also feel that it is too harsh to charge for parking. This mindset needs to change.

Vehicular parking is similar to street vending as both occupy public spaces like roads for private activities. Arguably, both are economic generating activities and add to the vibrancy of the city. Yet both are treated entirely differently in popular perceptions and thus, by the city government. When word ‘encroachments’ is used generally for the street vendors and not for the freely parked vehicles. The municipal raids to clear ‘encroachments’ do not touch the parked vehicles. Vendors are often under threats by the police and they are pushed around at different occasions. But vehicles can be parked freely anywhere and everywhere. Even the traffic police is selective about the kind of vehicles they catch to fine.

I am optimistic about paid parking policy to become a reality soon. The ever-increasing vehicles on the roads are going to force us to think of new ways of dealing with the ‘parking problem’. In a welcome move, the Ahmedabad’s Municipal Corporation and the Traffic Police have decided to have the paid parking lots around the Sarkhej-Gandhinagar highway. The CG road has had paid parking lots for two decades now but there is lot of unpaid parking in the side lanes. If our cities want to save their streets from being converted into permanent parking lots then the paid parking needs to be extended to its all major roads.

(17th August, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

Is there anything 'compulsory' that the government needs to do?

It is compulsory for the citizens to vote in the local body elections in Gujarat. If you don’t vote, you will be fined and asked for an explanation. Citizens are often blamed by the government and its representatives these days for not keeping the streets cleaned, for not paying enough taxes and now, for not making the democracy work. So the government steps in and makes voting compulsory. Some of us have been voting for many years and some of us have not been – mainly because the politics of the day never excited us to go out and vote. Not having witnessed any changes in the day-to-day situations, cynicism creeps in and voting does not seem like a fruitful exercise. Politicians do not realise that it is their job to ensure that voting remains relevant in our democracy and political contests remain alive. But it is always too much to expect anything from the politicians.

Very well, we will all vote then, without engaging in the conceptual confusion of whether voting is our right or duty or both! But there is a fundamental question about the relationship between the government and the people – should there be mandatory and legally binding accountability on either side when it comes to fulfilling fundamental duties? The relationship between citizens and government is always give and take. As citizens, we may not mind converting our political right as a compulsory duty. In return, we should also make a few things compulsory for the government to do. We should ask the government to mandatorily eliminate child malnourishment or child labour. The government should mandatorily and in legally binding manner, ensure clean water to all or education to all. If they fail to do so, the citizens can crowd-source funds and sue the government!

We do not sue the government because we understand that developmental issues are complex and it is not practical to demand such accountability on mandatory basis. Suing government officials and politicians randomly will neither help in achieving developmental goals nor will it ensure any accountability. Similarly, compulsory voting does not improve the accountability of voters. Compulsory voting will also not ensure smarter policies or smarter politicians. Anything that is compulsory is done half-heartedly. Half-hearted efforts cannot fix the larger problems of democracy.

There is a political promise of ‘minimum government and maximum governance’, which was very well received by the voters. Traditionally in India, we do not know what ‘minimum government’ means and the government has always assumed a large role without worrying about the delivery of any promises. Minimum government essentially means minimum interferences in our private life and respecting our choices. Maximum governance is about high accountability and transparency. Compulsory voting in its very spirit goes against not only this political promise of ‘minimum government’ but also the article 21 of the Constitution about protection of personal liberty. Paraphrasing David Brin, ‘when it comes to privacy and accountability, politicians always demand the former for themselves and the latter for everyone else’. Political accountability strengthens democracy more than compulsory voting.

(10th August, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

Paving paradise and putting up a parking lot? It should cost!

“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, they pave paradise and put up a parking lot,” – these are a few words of a song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ by American singer Joni Mitchell. This song summarises the problems created by the relentless parking in our cities. Best of public spaces or common spaces in residential areas are now parking lots. Can you imagine the municipal market at the CG road without parked vehicles? Probably, you will see some beautiful fountains and children playing around a nice plaza. Can you imagine alternative use of spaces in your residential area if it was not fully covered with parking? Probably, children would have lot many spaces to play around without the fear of vehicles and the elderly people would have lot many spaces to ‘hang around’.

The car ownership in India is still very low compared to many other developing countries and with increasing income, more and more families are going to buy cars. The families who already have cars will buy bigger cars. The city will have to make provision for at least two parking spaces per car – one at home and one near the workplace or the shopping place, which will be about 25 square metres per car. This is a huge burden on urban infrastructure to provide so much of floor space for the storage of the vehicles. Besides, one of these parking spaces is always going to remain empty. Parking space is a dead space – it cannot be used for anything else. So who should be investing in the parking infrastructure or whose responsibility is it to provide parking for the vehicles in a city?

Vehicles are private goods. When someone parks a car on a public road, it is an act of ‘privatising the public space’. When the government provides parking for free, they are subsidising the storage of private goods. Why should the government subsidise the storage of private goods? Yet some vehicle owners expect the provision of free parking anywhere and everywhere. To satisfy this demand of the vehicle owners, the government typically supplies multi-storey parking lots.

People who understand parking economics do not think of the multi-storey parking lots as the right solution. Let’s take for example the parking lot near Kankaria Lake, which used crores of rupees from the public exchequer. This multi-storey parking lot remains mostly vacant even in the peak hours while there is parking chaos on the road outside. Why should someone park inside this multi-storey parking lot when they can park on the road for free? The only way to get vehicle owners to park inside the multi-storey parking lots is to keep the parking charges on the streets higher than the parking lots.

It is imperative to take parking charges from every parked vehicle on all major roads for the act of ‘privatising the public space’. The international experience shows that the vehicles ‘disappear’ from roads when the parking is charged and when parking is free, more and more people are encouraged to take the vehicles out even for short trips. Paid parking would lead to better street design and management. If parking is charged on all major roads on the city, there will be a compulsion to provide designated parking lots, the parking chaos will be curtailed and more spaces will open up for the pedestrians.

(3rd August, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

Monday, July 27, 2015

A single public transport project cannot solve all traffic problems!

There are optimists and then there are daydreaming optimists. For daydreaming optimists, an announcement of a project is good enough to imagine that all problems will be solved. They would really believe that metro-based mass transit system would solve major traffic problems in the city. Single project solutions are not sustainable solutions for the long run. This is not to say that metro project in Ahmedabad does not have any merits. But the field of urban planning and traffic problems need a multi-starrer cast and one hero is never good enough.

Rail-based transport systems are sturdy and long lasting. They can expand their passenger carrying capacities easily and they move at great speed. They are probably the best system in moving people across cities. When it comes to intra-city travel, they have certain limitations. Metro rail will have a limited geographical spread and secondly, it is the most expensive public transport system. Which city can afford a capital cost of Rs200 crores per kilometer and then equally high operations costs in the system’s lifetime? Given the cost and infrastructure inputs, the metro rail project will only be feasible on a few corridors in a city and it will never have a good geographical spread as other systems. Which means it will have expensive tickets and it will be prohibitive to use for the low-income groups. The low-income groups are the captive public transport users and without their patronage, the metro system cannot prosper. Will the metro project try to attract the dedicated low-income commuters?

Even in cities like Delhi, where the metro have a good coverage of 190 kms or more, buses carry many more passengers than the metro. This is also true for London where the metro network is about 450 kms but the buses carry more passengers. The regular buses are always going to cover the cities well and their tickets are going to be cheaper. Buses are both competitor and complimentary services to the metro. The metro system will work well on the high-capacity segments and it will have to be integrated with the bus-based system to get benefits of the other segments. Smart cities recognise this and create public transport system that is seamlessly integrated. In London, you can use one smart card to access buses, metro, light rail, suburban rail, ferries and taxies. In Ahmedabad, we have two bus services belonging to one municipal corporation struggling to share platforms, ticketing and routes. The exclusivity of the BRTS and apathy in AMTS is hurting the passengers the most. As a result, there are more and more people encouraged to use private vehicles.

If the proposed metro project is going to bring yet another kind of exclusivity then not only the passengers will suffer but also the system will suffer due to low ridership. Seamless transfers and integration of public transport systems multiplies the benefits for everyone. There is a great opportunity to make Vasna, Paldi, Town hall junction, Wadaj and RTO junction as multi-modal transport hubs interlinking the regional bus, AMTS, BRTS and the proposed metro along with the auto rickshaws and taxis. From building one successful project, our cities will have to transit to make one successful system. Integrating projects and developing a system requires a great political and administrative acumen. A city, where success is measured based on systems and not based on projects, is a smart city.

(27th July, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

Monday, July 20, 2015

Be the change: Make slow resurgence of cycling in our cities possible

Nikita Lalwani is an instrumentation engineer working with a multi-national corporate firm called Linde Engineering in Vadodara and she has been cycling to work everyday for last one and half years. Nikita also promotes the idea of cycling at work and she has convinced many of her colleagues to take up cycling seriously. She also runs a website - cyclingcities.infor promoting a cycling culture in our cities. Everyday (or occasional) cycling to work has health benefits for individuals and environmental benefits to the society at large. It is high time that employers, firms and individuals come forward and support employees who are coming to work on cycles by proving secured parking spaces, shower rooms and financial support if need be. Should it not make ‘business sense’ to support cycling, which consumes less parking space compared to cars? Parking is becoming a big real estate problem and if an employee does not want to consume as much parking then it is beneficial to the firm! 
Amidst overwhelming automobile culture and increasing traffic on roads, there has been a slow resurgence of a cycling sub-culture in our cities, at least amongst the privileged class. Ahmedabad has active cycling clubs like Cyclone and Ahmedabad Bicycling Club. There are businesses like Decathlon, Revolutions, Cycle Shop, Cycle Crew and MyByke who support cycling related activities. Emergence of these clubs and businesses indicate that there is a growing interest in cycling. If cycling is further backed up by adequate infrastructure by the government and by private sector employers then this interest will only multiply. Of course, any investment in cycling infrastructure will also benefit lakhs of poor cyclists who commute everyday on cycles and it will also encourage children to take up cycling to go to school or for fun. Apart from the government and private firms, individuals have to play an important role to promote environment-friendly choices like cycling. 
Cycling to work or to other destinations is an individual’s initiative to combat climate change, air pollution and traffic congestion. Are we happy with just our children making drawings like ‘save trees’ in their schools or should our concerns for environmental degradation make us take the onus too? As a society with increasing incomes, should we form habits around relentless consumption or should we make more environmental friendly choices in our own lives? These are difficult questions with straight answers. Do as much as you can to make more environment-friendly choices and encourage others to do so. If you are an employer then encourage your employees to take up cycling and if you are an employee then seek support from your employer for promotion of cycling. 
Probably an entire generation of kids will never know how to wander around the city on cycles. Many parents put a blanket ban on cycling for their children, which may be unnecessary. It should be perfectly alright for children to cycle on roads with less or limited traffic. If such an environment is not available then it should be created even if it is temporary. An interesting cycling event is being planned on the 5 km stretch on the riverfront road on Sunday, July 26, from 6 am onwards. You are welcome to join with your children. The only condition is to bring cycles and possibly helmets. Let’s create a safe cycling environment to promote a cycling culture in our cities because cycling-friendly cities are people-friendly, healthy and beautiful cities.

 (20th July, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

Monday, July 13, 2015

Will the next-gen kids ever experience the fun of cycling on city streets?

It has become rare to find films depicting its main protagonist as an everyday cyclist. In the 1940s-50s films, cyclists were depicted as working class heroes who would cycle to work. Here, the cycle would become a symbol of hard work and freedom in an industrialising society. The films of the 1960s and 1970s showed cycling as both a recreational and a group activity, where the actor on a cycle used to go for a ‘picnic’ with his or her friends, singing and dancing. This changed drastically in the 1980s and 1990s when cycling started disappearing from the movies. Since then, cycles have only appeared in nostalgic or atypical sequences, but not as a part of life or as an everyday object. Indian cities have witnessed consistent decline of cycling from everyday life, popular culture and urban landscapes.
Films not only represent collective social experiences but also construct aspirations and imaginations of lifestyles. These observations prompt a gloomy question – is cycling a part of everyday urban life anymore? Is there space in our cities for cycling without getting hurt? Will the children today ever know the fun of aimless wandering - cycling and running around in the streets? Any possibilities of cycling on our motorised traffic-packed streets make a lot of people nervous today. I am not sure how genuine this fear of getting out on a cycle, is but a lot of people complain of safety issues, lack of infrastructure and weather conditions. In spite of all odds, there are lakhs of people who cycle to their destinations in our cities. Many school children still cycle to school for some years. Both of these groups have their own vulnerabilities of being victims in road crashes.
On the other hand, many countries around the world have seen a revival of cycling – London is investing about 1 billion pounds in cycling, that is after spending 500 millions in a public bike sharing scheme known as ‘Boris Bikes’. About 200 European cities, 50 South American cities and about 25 Asian cities have definitive plans for cycling infrastructure and promotion, including the public bike sharing schemes. Weather conditions are not very pleasant in London and in many other European cities, yet the numbers of cyclists keep going up and they continue to build infrastructure. Why in the world are these cities investing in cycling in the 21st century? Because they are worried about climate change and they are fighting the relentless air pollution. Besides, cycling-friendly cities are people-friendly, beautiful cities - Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Paris, Berlin, Dublin, Antwerp, Buenos Aires and many more. 
We have lakhs of cyclists in our cities but we still need to promote the culture of cycling and fight the social stigma of it being a ‘poor man’s vehicle’. A cycle is perfect for manageable distances and it is surely a healthier and environment-friendly mode of transport unlike any other mode. Cycles takes up less space while moving and parking. You can begin cycling just one day in a week. One message concluded it all for me – ‘cycle burns fat and saves money, car burns money and makes you fat!’ There are lots of local heroes who are putting in great efforts for reviving cycling in cities of Gujarat - more about them next week!

 (13th July, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

Stop blaming pedestrians for getting killed & instead sensitise motorists!

In the last week, I read two contradictory news items from Delhi and Ahmedabad. The Delhi Traffic Police took out a drive for unruly motorists to respect pedestrians by giving them enough space on zebra crossing. Motorists who stopped before zebra crossings were given chocolates and key chains and the ones who did not were fined. The reason for this drive was the data of road fatalities – almost 46% of the people who died in road crashes in Delhi were pedestrians. Pedestrians do not have proper footpaths to walk on or safe crossings to go across the roads. It is commendable that the Delhi traffic police took the road fatalities data seriously and ran a campaign of supporting pedestrian rights. 

The other news items came from our own Ahmedabad (DNA, 29/06/15) where pedestrians were termed as ‘rash pedestrians’ by the Traffic Police and blamed for their own death or injuries in road crashes. The pedestrians were asked to use zebra crossings and footpaths to be safe. Great! It would have been utmost helpful, if the Traffic Police took some efforts of showing the said zebra crossings and footpaths by walking for about 200 meters on any city road! Where are the footpaths and zebra crossings in Ahmedabad? Footpaths are mostly covered by parked vehicles, roadside businesses and other things. There is no space left on the zebra crossings for the pedestrians to cross. The zebra crossings start and end in blank walls, planters and hoardings. With such sorry state of pedestrian infrastructure in the city, they are still blamed as ‘causes’ of accidents. 

How can the pedestrians alone be the ‘causes’ of these accidents? When there is a collision can you only blame one side? I can only picture these ‘rash’ pedestrians as being zombies who are crashing themselves into the fast-moving vehicles and committing suicide. Calling pedestrians as the sole reason for accidents amounts to blaming the victims. Pedestrians are victims and not perpetrators of traffic crimes because they are at higher risks and are more vulnerable during road crashes. Victim blaming has its own logical fallacies and besides, it is convenient to blame someone – it distracts the attention from the real problems. If you blame the victims like the pedestrians then no one will ask questions about systemic problems like why there is no safe infrastructure for pedestrians in the city? OR why the Traffic Police is only concerned about protecting the vehicular traffic and why do they ignore the pedestrian or the non-motorised traffic? 

Traffic Police in Ahmedabad and in other cities are doing commendable job of managing the unmanageable – the never-ending traffic. They have scarce resources, inadequate staff, limited equipments and a thankless job. But an important part of their job is to reduce road fatalities and injuries. Blaming the victims does not help their job at all. Rather they should proactively work with different road users to make them safe on our hostile roads. 

About one-third of the total intra-city journeys in our cities are by walking. We all have to walk sometime or the other. Unsafe pedestrian environment affects everyone in the family. When pedestrians are using the roads, they are scavenging for safe spaces to walk on. They operate with a different logic compared to the motorised traffic. Beyond the usual contest over road space, it is essential that both the pedestrians and the motorists understand each other’s way of dealing with the road space and have mutual respect. Cities, which are built on mutual respect and shared spaces, are the most beautiful cities in the world. 

 (6th July, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

At crossroads – deliberative democracy and accountable governance

Few days back in a workshop, a government official (should I dare say servant) remarked that, "too much of democracy is the root of all problems". The context was some communities living in informal settlements refusing to give their 'data' to the officials who had decided to implement 24x7 water supply. These communities were never consulted while planning this scheme and they saw it as a ploy to extract more money from them in the name of services charges for the new scheme. Even the political wing (technically the people’s representative) were also not fully on board. But the officials expected the community to abide by their order (co-operate) and facilitate the implementation of the scheme. This is a classic case of the mutual mis-trust and breakdown in communication stalling the project. A lot could be inferred from this episode but let’s keep our focus on this remark.

Incidentally, it is the 40th anniversary of the declaration of emergency in India when all civil liberties were curtailed for two years, between 1975-77. The years under emergency reflected the attitude that ‘democracy doesn't work, we know what is best for the people and we need free hand to implement those good things’.  While it might seem unfair to connect casual remarks about the imperfections of democracy with the coercive act of subverting democracy at the national level, but both attitudes are born out of the same germs. People who do not like democratic processes are the ones who want to enjoy power without any accountability and govern on whims and fancies. Yes, democratic processes are messy and they take time but they are the fairest ways of dealing with public resources and discourses. More democracy is often answer to complicated public life problems rather less democracy. More democracy means developing projects and their budgets with people and making them part of the decision-making process – especially for the local issues which affect their life directly.

Good governance requires both the preparedness for the last minute and long-term planning for mitigation and adaptation. For example, water-logging and cave-ins in monsoon, heat stress in summer and Swine Flu in winter – how are these events dealt with? Many government officials will admit privately that they have a little time for long-term planning and new ideas. They are either in celebratory mode by managing events or they are chasing the last minute preparedness. And after achieving short-term goals, they come into self-congratulatory mode quickly. There is hardly any long-term planning directed towards mitigation or adaptation. Perpetual adhocism and last minute decisions work best with ‘command and control’ kind of attitudes and democratic processes seems as hindrances. 

In such situation, the only possible relationship between the people and the official is that of a petitioner and a lord. The officials have lost their ability to engage with the citizens on any issue. And the citizens have also lost patience in being part of any deliberative process set up by the government. Yes, we are often not too kind in our criticism of the government. And they are not too kind in dealing with rising expectations. Do we have a fix to this mutually developed fissure in the relationship? Yes, but the fix is not a quick one - more accountability, more deliberations, more engagement on both sides, probably. 

(29th June, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)