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)