The Propaganda of Transport

Propaganda is a very misused, overused and abused word today. Politicians use it all the time to attack each other. In such cases, we should take a closer look at the word Propaganda itself.

Merriam-Webster defines Propaganda as ideas or statements that are often false or exaggerated and that are spread in order to help a cause, a political leader, a government, etc.

Of course, we can take the liberty of interpreting Propaganda as a more open nature of promoting oneself or ones interests to an audience.

The most well known example of Propaganda is the 1940 film The Eternal Jew, directed by Fritz Hippler and produced by the Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels under the Deutsche Film Gesellschaft banner. The film was nowhere near subtle, and portrayed Jews as Uncivilised, Parasitic and worse. However, times have changed and propaganda in its current form is very subtle, often using bias to have its way.

In the recent times, propaganda has managed to make its way into the Transport sector too. When we say Propaganda in the Transport sector, we do not refer to naming stations, airports, roads and bridges after people. Mumbai has one major railway station and its airport named after Chhatrapati Shivaji. Bangalore has its central bus station and airport named after Kempegowda. This is a global phenomenon. New York’s major airport is named after former President John F Kennedy while it’s secondary airport is named after the 99th Mayor Fiorello La Gaurdia.

The propaganda we look at is subtle, and in some cases, not so subtle.

A Nationalistic Bus?

A BMTC Atal Sarige on route AS-6.
A BMTC Atal Sarige on route AS-6. Image copyright Binai K Sankar.

At first glance, the Atal Sarige operated by the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation [BMTC] looks like its livery is is draping the bus with the National Flag. But. It’s wrong. If you take a second look, you’d notice that the colour scheme is White, Green and Saffron/Orange. The party colours of the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP]. Further, the name itself is a giveaway. Named after former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the BJP, the bus was meant to serve the poorest of the poor.

Note: If you’re Mumbai, the highest fare is on a bus with its route number starting with AS, and if you’re in Bangalore, it’d be the opposite.

And now, for a little Aesthetics.

A TSRTC Metro Luxury Volvo at Lingampally.
A TSRTC Metro Luxury Volvo at Lingampally. Image copyright LoveOfZ, CC-BY-SA 4.0 International, Wikimedia Commons.

Pink is known to be a very soothing colour. It is often used to calm inmates in prison.

However, the Telangana State Road Transport Corporation [TSRTC] bus above did not turn pink to soothe its commuters. Telangana State was formed in 2014, and the party that won a majority in its Assembly Elections was the Telangana Rashtra Samithi [TRS], whose party colour is Pink. Thus, everyone who sees the bus will remember the colour pink and every time there is a campaign by the TRS, people will be calm, because, Hey, Pink is a soothing colour.

Switching Colours

And now, for the most interesting, and perhaps most noteworthy form of Bus-based propaganda.

Welcome to Tamil Nadu, where all the various divisions of the Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation [TNSTC], the Metropolitan Transport Corporation [MTC] of Chennai and the State Express Transport Corporation [SETC] are like Chamelons. Remember the phrase “गिरगिट की तरह रंग बदलना” (Girgit Ke Tarah Rang Badalna)? That’s what TNSTC/SETC/MTC buses do. Change colours; Every time the government changes. It’s like an unwritten part of the party manifesto.

Here’s a picture of an MTC bus taken in April 2011 below. It’s blue in colour. Blue is also a soothing colour, although I fail to understand why anyone would want to say ‘Feeling Blue’ to refer to Sadness.

A blue coloured MTC Semi Low Floor bus on route number 21G.
A blue coloured MTC Semi Low Floor bus on route number 21G. Image copyright Vinoth Thambidurai/CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported/Wikimedia Commons.

This picture was taken in April 2011, a month before the All India Anna Dravida Munnethra Kazhagam [AIADMK] government won the elections. Colour combinations were aplenty across Tamil Nadu. Some buses bore different shades of blue and yellow, some were white with Red, Yellow and Orange stripes across them, there were many.

Now, they are all uniform. While, I did mention Fragmentation in an earlier post, it would be great if each city had its own identity in terms of colours. Here, Tamil Nadu is one single entity in terms of coloured buses.

All long distance buses, including all SETC buses are now Green in Colour. They’re light green in colour with dark green stripes, or dark green in colour with light green stripes, depending on how you may want to look at them. Local buses, including all MTC buses all sport the same Brown-Beige combination which makes it look like the bus wasn’t washed at all. Perhaps a plan to not wash the buses regularly.

Below, is one such repainted bus, taken in 2013, belonging to TNSTC Coimbatore.

A TNSTC CBE bus at Vadavalli in Coimbatore.
A TNSTC CBE bus at Vadavalli in Coimbatore. Image copyright Faheem9333/CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported/Wikimedia Commons.

See, what did I tell you? Where did this come from? Some people tell me that the colour has to do with what happened before this repainting. Barely three-four months before the buses got this brown colour, they had a different colour.

An MTC bus in the intermediate colour scheme.
An MTC bus in the intermediate colour scheme. Image: The Hindu

Notice the colours? Notice the photo of Jayalalithaa on the windscreen? I know it’s a bit difficult to see it, but can you see it. In the picture, Jaya is seen wearing a saree that is the same colour as the Maroon on the bus. Her complexion matches the beige on the bus. Tada! When the paint jobs were done, all buses sported a huge photo of the Chief Minister on the front windshield on the left hand side.

And now, finally …

Green Leafy Vegetables Buses

They say, greens are good for health. They say Green is a sign of Eco-Friendliness. But, the leaves here don’t exactly say that do they?

An MTC Small Bus [Mini Bus].
An MTC Small Bus [Mini Bus]. Image: The Hindu

 While MTC curiously chose to name these buses as ‘Small Bus’, not ‘Mini Bus’, they also decided to put a few leaves on it. No points for guessing why. The AIADMK’s Party symbol is: Yes, that’s right, Two Leaves! But, wait! You can see four leaves on that bus! Simple: 2+2=4. The more the merrier. Two more leaves is just going to reinforce things into the commuters head.

Now, notice something common among all these Transcos mentioned? They’re all State-level bodies, not Municipal ones. You’ll never see BEST, AMTS, or PMPML like this. Why? Decentralisation of transport management ensures that while Municipal Bodies have the wherewithal to run the Transco, they won’t have the time or resources to go behind such trivial stuff. They’ll have more important stuff such as banners, roads, naming of Chowks to work in their favour.

On an unrelated note: Searching for Purple Faeries on Google leads you to the Tag Purple Faeries. I call this, Purple Propaganda..

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American Elections Are Like Indian Transport: Fragmented

The world’s oldest democracy is going to vote soon. Two years ago, the world’s largest democracy voted. What is the difference between the two? Well, without going into the nitty-gritties of both, let’s just focus on one point: Fragmentation.

In India, elections be it General, State Assembly, Municipal or Presidential are conducted by the Election Commission of India. Each state has a Chief Electoral Office [CEO] who is repsonsible for voter enrollment, candidate declarations, etc. While each state has a different way of getting the Enrollment done [Karnataka enabled Voters to submit scanned copies of their documents and fill the form online, as far back as 2013], the Election Process is Uniform across India. In the United States, the system is totally different. The Constitution, under Article 1, Section 4 gives complete power to the State governments in matters relating to voting. The Federal Elections Commission oversees the election in general, enforcing term limits, disclosing campaign finance information, etc.

Due to this decentralised nature, each state has its own method of conducting elections. Some states may use Electronic Voting Machines, so may use Ballot Papers, etc. This may result in some anomaly. The Butterfly Ballot issue of Palm Beach County Florida [explained here in the American Political Science Review] is one such example.

Reconstruction of the Butterfly Ballot Paper from Palm Beach County Florida in 2000.
Reconstruction of the Butterfly Ballot Paper from Palm Beach County Florida in 2000. Image copyright Gzuckier, CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported, Wikimedia Commons.

In places where Electronic Voting is followed, the voter has to fill up an optically-readible ballot paper which is then fed into a machine.

In India, a standard uniform system is following using the Electronic Voting Machines developed by Bharat Electronics Limited and the Electronics Corporation of India Limited.

An Electronic Voting Machine in India.
An Electronic Voting Machine in India. Image: பரிதிமதி, CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported, Wikimedia Commons

Now, while diversity is a good thing, for it results in better quality of products and services, fragmentation is not really that good in reality.

Now that we understand the issues relating to a fragmented system, let us come back to Indian Transport.

Transport in India is largely a fragmented segment. Excluding aviation, which is governed by central policies and is full of private players, and the Indian Railways network, let us focus on the Buses and their operations.

Depending on which part of India you are in, the bus you board would be operated by either the State Government or the Municipal Corporation. The exception is Chandigarh, where the CTU comes under the Union Territory Administration, and in the absence of a Legislative Body like in Delhi or Puducherry, it comes under the Union Government.

But it is not this fragmentation that I am talking about. This is due to the various levels of decentralisation that is prevalent across our country. The fragmentation that I am talking about is what is prevalent within a single Transco, or a single City division/SPV of a State level Transco.

To give an example:

BEST is among the most defragmented Transcos. Every bus used the same ticket machine, every conductor issues the same kind of ticket and every bus or conductor accepts a Smart Card, be it a Pass or a Prepaid Card. The fragmentation arises in matters such as the LED display: Some buses have a full length LED display on the front, some have the tiny one visible in new buses, and irrespective of whether these are functional or not, some still use the old Rolling Cloth system for displaying the route and number.

In the case of BMTC, fragmentation is higher. Not all buses are properly hooked on to the Tracking platform, some buses still use the old Quantum Aeon ticket machines or worse, some still issue the old punched tickets.

Simmilarly, NMMT shows some amount of fragmentation. While earlier, only AC services had Electronic ticketing, now, all have it. But, only AC bus tickets can be booked using an app, while others still have to go through the machine.

Delhi too, is a good example of fragmentation. While regular buses, Cluster Buses and the Blueline buses are all operated by different entities, they essentially operate on the same route. However, buses operated by the DTC still use manual fare collection, with a handful of ticket machines thrown in for good measure in the last few months. The Cluster buses operated by the DIMTS have ticketing machines, can be tracked online, but there is compatibility of their systems with the DTC ticketing process. Blueline/Metro Feeder and other private buses, don’t have any form of connected ticketing.

Now, this brings us to an important point. Common mobility.

More Card: National Common Mobility Card
More Card: National Common Mobility Card

The Government of India had rolled out the More Card in 2012 as a common mobility card. Initially restricted to the Delhi Metro and Route 56 of the DMRC Feeder Bus, it was launched post the failure of the Go Mumbai Smart Card. While Mumbai has gone ahead with its Smart Card System, although extremely fragmented [one card each for BEST, Metro, Monorail and the Suburban Rail], it has managed to make cashless travel in almost all forms of transit. Autos and taxis are not covered, although Ahmedabad has gone ahead with such a proposal. I haven’t seen the More Card anywhere in Delhi in the last two years, and I have seen all Metro Feeder buses issue regular paper tickets.

In 2015, the Ministry of Urban Development came up with another proposal for a National Common Mobility platform with collaboration from the National Informatics Centre [NIC], Centre For Development of Advanced Computing [C-DAC], Bureau of Indian Standards [BIS], and the National Payments Corporation of India [NPCI]. The new system is proposed to use Europay, MasterCard and Visa [EMV] Open Loop system with a stored value system. It also took into account the deficiencies with cards in Singapore. It took the Octopus Card from Hong Kong as a base for its working, in order to support Passes as well; a crucial feature of BEST’s RFID Cards. While C-DAC will develop standards for existing Metro Rail systems, the problem will arise with other modes of transport. Ferries in India don’t use eTicketing. They still use the old fashioned ticketing. Barring Mumbai and Kerala, no other area of India has a proper water transit system or anything resembling one in place. Similarly, with Tolls, will this be accepted at toll plazas operated by other bodies except the National Highways Authority of India [NHAI]? Will it be compatible with FASTag? With each Transco using different ticketing machines [BEST uses Balaji, BMTC uses Verifone, both supplied by Trimax], will the entire system be compatible with each other?

Further, with vehicle tracking. A National Mobility platform will require the Vehicle Tracking System in place. BEST uses a GPS device fitted onto a bus, BMTC and DIMTS use the location from the ticketing machines. All this results in a jumble that nobody would seem to understand.

Let us hope that provisions are made to ensure backward compatibility of systems so that money is not wasted in procuring new technology.

Moral of the story: The odds of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump winning are the same as the odds of getting into a BMTC bus and getting either a printed ticket, or the regular ticket.

 

 

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Mumbai autowala gives an actress a fake note, We’re left wondering

Recently, it emerged that an Autowala in Mumbai gave an actress Megha Chakraborty a Fake 100 rupee note.

The Fake 100 Coupon Note, signed by Santa Claus of the Children's Bank of India.
The Fake 100 Coupon Note, signed by Santa Claus of the Children’s Bank of India.

ScoopWhoop did a fantastic analysis of the note:

  • It claims to be issued by the Children Bank of India
  • It claims its value is One Hundred Coupon
  • The guarantee on it says ‘I promise to play with the coupon hundred’.
  • It is signed by Santa Claus.

Now, while we leave the analysis of the note to the experts at BuzzFeed and ScoopWhoop, we are left wondering about something else.

It is 2016. Cashless payment is here. UPI is here. Jio is here. RFID Cards are here. Uber and Ola are also here. PayTM and MobiKwik are here. Why pay with Cash?

The excuse that some people may not have a bank account, or a phone is no longer a valid argument, atleast not in India’s largest city.

There are two ways of achieving cashless payments:

The Physical Method

This is simple. An RFID card. BEST has a prepaid smart card in place for buses. Mumbaikars would know by now that there are FOUR prepaid cards available in the city: One for BEST, one for the Suburban Railway, one for the Metro and one for the Monorail. While the erstwhile Go Mumbai Smart Card that was scrapped in 2011 was valid on both BEST and the Suburban Rail, the RTA has mooted a common mobility card for all forms of transit. If this comes into play, this can be extended to auto-rickshaws too. Mumbai’s much, much younger sibling Ahmedabad has already raced ahead by enabling autos to be part of the Smart Card system. Of course, this will work only in a few cities. The Greater Mumbai Region, Pune, Ahmedabad, Surat, and to a certain extent Bengaluru, are among the few cities where one can find autowalas return even the last rupee change to the passenger. Delhi’s autos, with its fancy GPS enabled fare-meters NEVER ply by meter, so the chances of them accepting a prepaid card is close to zero. Gurgaon, and other areas, well, don’t even have a fare-meter in the vehicle, so tough luck.

The Digital Method

Again, Mumbaikars would know this well. The UTS app by the Centre for Railway Information Systems [CRIS] allows commuters to buy tickets and Season Passes using an Android phone and a mobile wallet. Of course, it has its own share of problems. This is also the model followed by Uber and Ola for non-cash rides. All one requires for this is a prepaid wallet and a phone. While Ola chose to partner with ZipCash, Uber chose to partner with PayTM. In some cities, autowalas have PayTM QR codes affixed to their vehicles, all the passenger needs to do is open the app, scan the code and transfer the amount. Walah!

The Bottom Line

We are not a poor nation. We are not a third-world nation. When we have advanced so much to the extent of having prepaid cards for bus tickets, and also buying suburban rail tickets on the phone, why can’t we slowly do away with cash based transit systems?

 

 

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A Bright Future Ahead for Electric Buses in India

Swiss Group ABB has come up with a rather grand plan to make India a completely electric vehicle nation in 12 years (2030). It has even announced its intention to supply buses that can be charged in 15 seconds.

Last year, Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari stated that 1.5lakh buses operated by various state-operated transport undertakings (STUs) were to be converted to electric buses in a bid to save some money on its Rs. 8lakh crore crude imports.

The aim of this flash-charging technology is to enable buses to operate with smaller batteries. In August 2016, ABB India Managing Director Sanjiv Sharma had said that the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways had given its green signal to operate buses with the new technology on a pilot basis. Minister Nitin Gadkari had stated that these buses could be charged at night at Rs. 3.5 per unit of electricity as compared to Rs. 50-60 for a litre of diesel.

These buses would be charged at bus stations using a mechanical arm which charges only when a bus is connected. Further, it eliminates overheard wires and charges while passengers are boarding and disembarking.

ABB is partnering with Volvo buses to operate these buses in 13 cities across the country.

ABB is also planning a launch in December in Geneva, in partnership with Public-Transport operator TGP to operate 12 such buses across a 14km long stretch.

 

The National Electricity Mission Plan 2020 has identified the need to replace large batteries with smaller ones and use rapid-charging technologies to make it possible. The potential demand for Electric Buses is pegged at approximately 2500 buses by 2020.

 

Ashok Leyland, meanwhile has unveiled what it calls the first ‘Indigenous Electric’ bus manufactured in India. The Circuit series of buses, will be offered with a subsidy under the Central Government’s Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of (Hybrid) and Electric Vehicles (FAME) scheme and can travel 150km on a single charge.

 

FAME, as part of the National Electric Mobility Mission Plan, aims to put close to 7 million electric and hybrid vehicles on the roads by 2016.

 

As stated earlier, The Future of Urban Transport is the Bus. Buses are more effective than other mass transit projects because they are cheaper, faster to procure and do not involve dedicated large-scale construction. The only thing a bus requires is a road and a bus station, which is why it forms the basic rung of public transport.
While the new buses will certainly be a game-changer in the field of transport, they will also be a big boost for Make In India. These buses will form a totally different market and will require a separate workforce to research, design and develop them, along with the supporting infrastructure. Ultimately, it will result in a massive employment surge while also providing an export market for completed buses.

The future of buses in India is certainly a bright one, one spark can ignite a fire. One bus can change the future.

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Let’s Keep Walking

Walking, the most fundamental way to travel, is a joy to many, while a lot of people crib and whine about it.

Walking brings joy to a lot of people. It’s the surest way to remain reasonably healthy, and also gets the job done: You reach your destination, albeit a little slower.

Walking is a lot like cycling, except it doesn’t require specialised equipment, namely a cycle, and is more compatible with rugged terrain than a cycle. In short, walking up and down a staircase or a craggy hill is easier than attempting the same with a cycle. However, both face the same issues with motorists treating them with contempt.

In an earlier post on Andhra Pradesh’s upcoming capital city of Amaravati, I had given a few suggestions on making cities cycle and pedestrian friendly. Now, let us leave that to the Planners and Experts. Our focus here is on walking.

Why would you walk?

Simple. To get somewhere. I walk to the provision store, I walk to the bus stop, I walk everywhere. In some places, like several IT campuses across the country, driving is restricted to certain designated zones, and thus, you would be required to walk or cycle in the other areas. If you cannot cycle, your only option is to walk.

Walking is crucial, not only for those using public transport, but also for cyclists and motorists. You need to walk to the parking lot. You need to walk where the cycle cannot be used. Walking in crowded areas is a pain, and this is where I realise that Mumbai is probably the best city [pun intended, of course] for walks. Why? The Mumbai Skywalk Project.

The Nana Chowk Skywalk at Grant Road.
The Nana Chowk Skywalk at Grant Road. Image copyright Srikanth Ramakrishnan, CC-BY-SA International.

Starting with the 1.3km long skywalk connecting Bandra Railway Station [East] to Kalanagar junction in 2009, the city of Mumbai has numerous skywalks connecting various railway stations to localities in the vicinity, bypassing the crowd, bus stops, vendors, and all below. The skywalk in Andheri East connects Andheri Railway Station, Andheri Metro Station, Agarkar Chowk Bus Station, as well as the bus stop atop the Gopal Krishna Gokhale Bridge, while the Bandra skywalk connects Bandra Station, Bandra Bus Station, Bandra Court, the Western Express Highway as well as Swami Vivekananda Road.

The Nana Chowk Skywalk, connecting Nana Chowk to Grant Road is a spectacular structure. Built at a cost of ₹43crore, the structure is a oval-shaped, cable-stayed one. It is illuminated with Pink LED lights at night, thus making it an interesting sight to see. Now, while many people might consider it a waste of money, I’d like to see things a little differently. We normally hear of crores of money being spent on building roads for vehicles,  but seldom do we hear about money being spent on making the lives of pedestrians easier. Right?

Governments need to realise the importance of pedestrian infrastructure. A four laned road just won’t do. A four lane road with provisions for pedestrians and cyclists at the periphery is the need of the hour.

Walking, is at the end of the day, the best way to exercise. Of course, I have been told that kissing burns more calories, but who cares? I can walk alone. That’s all that matters to me.

Let's Keep Walking, for it's the best way to stay fit! Click To Tweet

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The Joy of Solo Travel

Travel: Something we do on a daily basis. Also known as commute when done in the same city/region to head to work.

However, travelling alone, no matter where has a totally different ring to it.

I travel alone a lot. Be it long distance, or short distance. It can be in any form, auto, taxi, bus, or train. Planes can also be counted, but I’ve rarely had any fun on a plane, just earaches and snobby co-passengers. I end up sleeping while listening to music during the flight.

So now, coming back to our grounded transport. Here’s what I have discovered.

Traveling solo opens up your mind to new thoughts that otherwise wouldn’t penetrate you. If you’re traveling with a friend chances are that you will spend most of your travel time interacting with them. When you go solo, your mind is open to observing more around and learning more.

Whenever I’ve been in a long bus ride, be it something as short of Mumbai-Pune or something as long as Bangalore-Mumbai, I’ve always had interesting conversations. I’ve had discussions ranging from 3 Idiots to Nuclear Warfare.

One one bus journey, I spent 5 hours discussing the state of India’s road network with my co-passenger. He was extremely enthusiastic on discussing the road network with me. We later branched into the rail network and ultimately discussed luxury buses. On another trip, I was discussing career plans with a Software Industry. Being a Computer Science student, I wasn’t too keen on taking it up as an occupation, and I was not interested in doing an MBA. He convinced me to write the entrance exams, which I did, and got into one of India’s better known B-Schools, but didn’t take up ultimately. My favourite trip was in 2009, when I discussed the Indian Education System, Piracy, Bad Roads, Missal Pav, Batata Vada, and Free Markets with a man who was an engineer in Bosch. How cool is that?

On trains, I recall various conversations with people too. On a railway trip from Mumbai to Delhi in the Rajdhani, I had an intense debate with an elderly Tambram couple from Matunga on the pros and cons of Dairy Whitener that was given with the Tea and Coffee on the train. Yes, a 2 hour conversation purely devoted to Milk Powder. On the return journey, I was both given and giving relationship advice from a complete stranger. It might have seen awkward, but I have multiple times in the past been accorded the status of the Single Guy who gives the best Relationship Advice. Of course, knowing me, I an probably give you the BEST advice, even on an NMMT or TMT bus.

On one trip in a Mumbai local, I was gifted a copy of the Bhagvad Gita. A month later, I was gifted a copy of the Bible by someone in the Delhi Metro. I’ve read both and keep them in my library of books.

It was on one trip in the Delhi Metro that I discovered that the MG Road station in Gurgaon was renamed after Syska. This was my first encounter with branded stations on the Delhi Metro. Prior to this, I had only encountered them on the Gurgaon Metro. Excited, I tweeted out an image to The Metro Rail Guy who promptly put out a post on his website and linked it back to me! [See: Delhi Metro’s MG Road Station in Gurgaon Renamed to SYSKA MG Road]

Travelling solo has made me understand more, learn more, and have interesting conversations with people from all walks of life. I think you guys should give it a shot too.

The Joys of Solo Travel Click To Tweet

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Buses are burning in Karnataka: When will be safe?

As I started typing this, I saw images of 50 odd buses, belonging to KPN and SRS Travels, both while based in Tamil Nadu, having buses registered in Karnataka [that’s right, paying taxes to Karnataka] on fire in Kengeri and Shanthinagar. I see Volvo buses on fire. That’s right. Expensive buses, on fire. That’s not all. I see numerous trucks damaged and on fire today. None of this is untrue. My family members have reported them, first hand, having seen it happening in front of them. Tamil Nadu registered trucks, buses, cars are being torched. Elsewhere at work, a relative of someone I know had his TN-registered car vandalised. His phone has been switched off, and his whereabouts unknown to us.

Read this for more updated info:

Cauvery row live updates | Watch: 20 buses set on fire at KPN bus depot in Bengaluru

Meanwhile, 400km North of the state capital, in the city of Hubli, trucks with TN registration are being attacked by mobs. This is in Hubli, a city that culturally has more in common with the neighbouring state capital of Mumbai, that it does with its own state capital. While Hubli and Belgaum [or Hubbali and Belgavi if you prefer] are culturally similar to Mumbai, they are integrally a part of Karnataka.

However, the point is that the state is burning. Especially its capital. Not Hubli, not Mysore, not Mandya, but Bangalore.

What started this? The Kaveri river. Or, as someone like to call it, the Cauveri.

On 5th September, the Supreme Court directed the Karnataka government to release 15000 cusecs of water from the Krishnarajasagara Dam to Tamil Nadu for the next ten days, and also directed Tamil Nadu to release water appropriately to the Union Territory of Puducherry. What happened next? A bandh was declared on Friday by Vatal Nagaraj and activists of the Kannada Rakshana Vedike.

Now, interesting to note here, is that ever since the last week of July, Karnataka has been in a turmoil. 25-26-27 July witnessed a bus strike in Karnataka. 29 got wasted because of incessant drizzle, while on 30th, a Bandh was declared by the pro-Kannada activists after the Mahadayi Water Dispute Tribunal rejected Karnatakas’s plea for 7.56 thousand million cubic feet of water from the Mahadayi or Mandovi River. Following this, Karnataka witnessed bandhs when trade Unions went on strike in the first week of September and today, mob violence.

Katnataka filed a special appeal with the Supreme Court. The verdict for this came out on 12th September at 10.30am. The SC directed the Karnataka government to release 12,000 cusecs instead of the earlier 15,000 cusecs.

Now, let us put all of this aside. What caused this?

The media? Yes. The media. The media ran various stories of Tamil youth allegedly beating up Kannadigas in Tamil Nadu. Nothing wrong in doing that. But… But but but. They chose to upload a whole damn video along with it. This video went viral and is what started the problems in the first place. The next day, I received a video of goons in Tamil Nadu hacking a woman to death, claiming that it was done because she was Kannadiga. I did what I had to do as a citizen. I forwarded the video to the Whatsapp number of the Bangalore City Police and they later issued a notice that the video was an old video and had *absolutely nothing, nothing whatsover* to do with the current scenario.

My question is. Why are these anti-social elements *still* in Existence in our society?

When India has been sharing Indus water with Pakistan and Ganga/Brahmaputra water with Bangladesh without issues, why are river related issues in India so bad?

Someone, please answer my question. Buses are on fire, trucks are on fire. Do these so called activists and protestors realise that someone’s livelihood depends on those buses? How does burning buses solve a water crisis? This isn’t my question, but the question from KPN travels.

Buses are burning. When will we be safe? Click To Tweet

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Corrupt Babus from the Stone Age are Impeding Better Transport

Many ‘futurists’ and a significant number of urban local government officials and policymakers I’ve met and/or interacted with hold the following view – ‘Internet, faster communication and changing social attitudes will soon make large urban agglomerations i.e cities in the form of cities irrelevant. We will be participants in an era of small, compact cities with innovators, job creators and seekers moving to such cities from megacities to make their fortunes’.

This view is often represented as a fact in many conferences, seminars and ‘talks’ by organized by the intelligentsia which in turn has transformed the view into conventional wisdom. They are wrong. The internet or any other faster means of communication (except  teleporting perhaps’ will never be able to match  This view combined with the very Indian tendency to ‘equalize’ development of different regions has led to some perverse policy prescriptions but that is a matter for another day. In this post, I will discuss a little on why the ‘compact future city’ view is incorrect and touch upon what we need to improve transportation outcomes..

In his book- The Rise and Fall of Nations, Ruchir Sharma writes:

‘In recent years it became fashionable to argue that location no longer matters, because the internet makes it possible to provide services from anywhere. But physical goods still make up the bulk of global trade flows, and location still matters for companies that want to be close to their customers and suppliers.’

Some of you may argue that physical goods will not constitute a majority of trade flows in the near future where trade will mostly constitute IT based service sector transactions; and that’s when we will see intelligent people leaving cities along with their businesses for small towns. You would then be wrong. Again. Later in the book, Ruchir Sharma writes this:

‘Today the internet is making geography irrelevant neither for manufacturing industries nor for service industries. People still meet face to face in order to manage and build service companies that provide everything from internet search engines to cargo logistics, and new companies in these industries typically set up in the same town to tap the same expert talent pool. The result is the rise of cities with a cluster of companies and talent in a specific service niche.’
‘In South Korea, Busan continues to thrive as the nation’s leading port and as a regional hub for logistics service companies. In the Philippines, Manila has been rising for some time as as a major global provider of back office services, and now that business is spilling over to its satellite cities, including Quezon and Caloocan. Dubai continues to build on its dual role as a major port moving oil and other goods and as a service hub for the Middle East.’

To the above list, I would add- Bangalore continues to thrive as India’s leading education hub and as a hub for R&D, IT-BPO companies; Mumbai continues to thrive as the city whose professionals arrange financing for mega projects across India and Kolkata for producing intellectuals who fill our history textbooks with crap.

In short, cities will NOT become small. Businesses and intelligent people will NOT move to compact cities. Most of India’s megacities will keep getting bigger. (I’m not saying that there is no future for second cities and therefore we should ignore them. They are a very integral part of the modern economy and need to be accorded that status. That discussion is for another post). Our planners and urban administrators need to imbibe this very basic fact when they are managing our cities. In my opinion, amongst these planners and urban administrators, the ones that need to learn this lesson the most are – public transport officials.

A few months ago, St Srikanth of Depot (Srikanth) and I had a chance to interact with officials of BMRCL (Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited) and BMTC (Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation). Almost every second conversation we had with a management level employee revealed their deep discomfort about private operated public transport facilities. Before these conversations, I admit to having hoped that public transport officials would recognize that government ownership of public transport infrastructure and the legal monopoly over these operations would increasingly lead to very bad transportation outcomes. Those hopes were dashed after the above mentioned conversation. I realized that these buggers are going to sit on their arses, wait for their retirement and meanwhile prevent and/or harass tech enabled transportation systems like Uber, Ola and ZipGo and oppose private entry into the business in the traditional forms.

Before continuing that rant, I will emphasise the need for an efficient public transportation system in every city. As mentioned before, every city is essentially a concentrated labor market. Businesses – low tech, high tech, service sector, manufacturing like to set themselves up in cities as these cities offer them access to a large pool of labor in short distance. This in combination with the fact that most of their suppliers and customers too do the same lead to something known as agglomeration benefits. All the above depends upon the efficiency of the transportation system and the density of urban living. The higher the efficiency of transportation networks and the density of urban living, the greater the agglomeration benefits and therefore higher incomes.

Let me illustrate this with an example from our National Capital Region. Say Srikanth decides to shift from Bengaluru [He is desperate to] to the wretched hellhole that is NCR and rents a place in Dharuhera (About 45kms from Gurugram). He is forced to rent here because he has a taste for luxury and but his bank account isn’t all that good enough to enable him to live in Gurugram. It takes about an hour to travel between Gurugram and Dharuhera as he travels through public transport, Uber and Ola aren’t available in Dharuhera and the nearest metro is HUDA city center which is about 40kms away.  What are the chances of him accepting a job paying ₹60k per month near Rajiv Chowk i.e. Connaught Place, New Delhi over a job paying ₹55k in Gurugram ? (It takes about 2.5 hrs to travel from Dharuhera to Connaught Place). Very low. He most probably will take the ₹55k job as it saves him 3 hours of travelling everyday. The company in Connaught Place will probably have to do with lower quality labor or increase the offer and thus incur higher labor cost.

Haryana Roadways is one of the worst state road transportation companies (SRTCs) with only about 100 buses in operation in Gurugram on about 15 routes. If one attempts to go via public transport from Dharuhera to Gurugram, he or she is forced to take the very rickety illegal buses as the Haryana Roadways buses on the route are very infrequent. The private ones that operate are harassed and sometimes seized if they use the Haryana Roadways logo to escape harassment. If private bus operators existed and the construction on the highway is completed, the route will take about half an hour. Srikanth might take up a job a little further away from Gurgaon say at Hauz Khas @ ₹58k.

Now, back to my rant on BMTC and BMRCL. The old geezers in BMTC and their parent PSU- KSRTC will NEVER give up their legal monopoly. The ones in BMRCL will take another 10 years to realize that Majestic and MG Road no longer are the locus of business activity in Bengaluru city and that the locus has shifted to suburbs like Whitefield and Sarjapur. If Karnataka and other states stop harassing tech based taxi and bus aggregators like Ola, Uber, ZipGo and ends the legal monopoly of SRTCs and their subsidiaries, the transportation outcomes in our cities will vastly improve and believe me and the years of Urban Economics research- the resultant increase in agglomeration benefits will make everyone richer off.

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This article was later republished on Swarajya.

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My fascination with buses

Impromptu Post Alert: I’m going to try and explain where my fascination for buses comes from.

It all dates back to 1998. I believe I had mentioned this on the second blog post where I spoke about why Bus No. 56 meant to much to me. This pretty much predates that. I spent my early days growing up in in Madras, known to most people as Chennai, where buses have an interesting story of their own. Earlier operated by the Pallavan Transport Corporation, and since renamed to the Metropolitan Transport Corporation, these buses [originally green in colour] enjoyed a notorious infamy similar to Delhi’s Blueline buses. They had a nickname too: Pallavan Kollavan, which literally means Killer Pallavan. My first encounter with a Pallavan bus was aroun 1997 when a bus drove off the bridge over the Adayar River at Ekkaduthangal and landed on the older bridge below. For some strange reason, this incident remained on my mind for weeks.

Fast forward to 1998, shift to Bombay, also known as Mumbai. The city that I today consider my home. I had been to Bombay back in 1996, but it was when I shifted in 1998 that things started falling into place. Staying in Vashi, the first thing that was done was to find a school to get into. The school we found, was in Santacruz. Thus, my first trip in a BEST bus, a 505 Ltd from Vashi to Bandra occurred.

A BEST Bus No. 505Ltd in its current avatar, with a scrolling LED display.
A BEST Bus No. 505Ltd of the Bandra Depot heading from Bandra Bus Station to CBD Belapur in its current avatar, with a scrolling LED display. Image copyright Srikanth Ramakrishnan, CC-BY-SA 4.0 International, available on the Wikimedia Commons.

Slowly, as I grew up, trips by buses increased. First, it was the school bus. Since we had multiple school buses going to the same destination, with different routes, several of my fellow bus mates started having mock rivalries with students in different buses. It became a matter of prestige when our bus reached before the other one.

Slowly, I started taking BEST buses when I missed the school bus, or had to come back late. I used to take BEST buses for various classes and my attachment to them began. Of course, living in Bombay meant that there would be an extra attachment to BEST because there were proper marked bus stops, both shelters and unipoles everywhere.

This slowly escalated to a point where I preferred my 56 to the school bus.  I used stuff all the tickets [then and now considered a Collectors item] in my backpack. I was once caught by a Ticket Checker and he went thru around 300 tickets in my bag looking for the right one. I’ve never had such a collectors fetish for any other city’s tickets.

Come 2008, and a shift to Bangalore. I have to take a bus home from college. I discover that the city’s buses were [and still are] lacking in many ways. No direct buses home! I had to switch buses for a 5km distance. This acute badly managed set of buses got me interested in how to fix the issues. I wrote numerous times to the BMTC and then Transport Minister R Ashok. I posted on Facebook, and Skyscrapercity. Not that it made much of a difference though. I had a box of BMTC tickets, and unlike BEST, had no special attachment to them. I decided to build a model plane [curiously named the Flightplane Vajra after BMTC’s Vajra buses from where most of the tickets originated]. I designed the template with a regular sheet of paper, and thickened it with layers of bus tickets. Of course, the plane never did get built, its fuselage and wings are lying in different sections of my cupboard, mainly because I abandoned my Engineering dreams to take up a BSc.

In 2009, I came to the conclusion that buses were the future of Transport. I badgered anyone around me who was willing to listen. It was the year I made my first long-distance bus trip from Bangalore to Bombay, one that was to occur frequently in the years to come. I just hunted around looking for validation for my theory. I thought I was right when Mercedes Benz launched their buses, but it fizzled out. Later on, Scania’s entry and its presently strong market share have proven me correct. The biggest validation I did receive, however, was in 2016, when R Jagannathan of Swarajya wrote an article titled Why The Future Of Urban Transport Is The Bus, And Not Necessarily The Metro. I lurk around Swarajya too, writing on transport and urban affairs.

Post Bangalore, I moved to Coimbatore. I took to buses again. I traveled around the city, the suburbs, nearby districts, exploring towns, villages, rivers, farmlands, temples, etc. During Republic Day 2013, I traveled 350km by bus to Ulundurpet and Villupuram to take a photograph of two Toll Plazas.

I made a few trips to Ahmedabad in this period where I got addicted to traveling by the Janmarg. Being my first BRTS experience, it had a profound impact on me.

Then came the next move to Pune. Along with Pune, came a few trips to Dehradun, Delhi and Gurgaon. I made full use this time, with complete travel across all cities, taking as many buses as possible. The Pimpri-Chinchwad BRTS has a special connection to me.

By 2015, I had decided that I *just had to* start writing about buses somewhere. Starting a blog seemed to be the most apt thing to do, and thus, I did.

Here is my philosophy behind taking buses:

  1. You learn the city. I don’t look at a city by its stores, malls and cafes. I look at it for its topography, its layout, the culture of each locality.
  2. Buy a Daily Pass, board a bus and just scoot off! Take a camera or a phone, and click random photographs while traveling. You learn a lot of interesting stuff.
  3. I learnt Kannada and Marathi thanks to buses. I went from knowing just Aai Kuthe [Where is your mother] to Bus kramank 56 ghe, ani Khar dandachya bus stop utara [Take Bus 56 and get down at Khar Danda bus stop. I know my Marathi is still weak].

So, that’s the story behind my bus-mania!

This post is dedicated to three very special friends:

  • Geetzy, who although doesn’t take a bus, encourages me to remain positive. To put it in perspective, don’t fret in traffic. You are in a bus with a Pass, not in an Uber, paying by the minute.
  • Nidhi, who till date is the only person who has understood my craze, and has bought a pass to accompany me in a bus with her camera.
  • Sammy, who clicked a photo of a bus when I badgered him to do so.

So go ahead, share my craze among your friends. We all have a passion or obsession. What’s yours?

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How serious are we about Security?

How serious are we about security while traveling?

Everyone has been through a security check at airports, often having to go thru multiple levels of checking, scanning, and frisking. But what about others?

X-ray Luggage screening device at Suvarnabhumi International Airport, Bangkok
X-ray Luggage screening device at Suvarnabhumi International Airport, Bangkok. Image copyright Mattes in the Public Domain, available on the Wikimedia Commons.

It is rare to see functional Security systems in Railway stations across the country. Mumbai’s Suburban Rail witnessed a series of horrific bombings a decade ago while BEST buses have been the target of bomb blasts twice: 2002 and 2003, both outside Ghatkopar Station.

So what do we do?

Stringent security checks aren’t always feasible. You can do it for an airline because of the lesser crowd. But can you imagine doing that for every passenger at Mumbai Central or New Delhi station? It’s humanely impossible, mainly because of the volume of people.

Metro systems do have a decent security check in place. Delhi Metro uses the Central Industrial Security Force that the Airports across the country use. The Airport Express also has CISF guards, but they are stricter, and the security checks are more in line with the airport security checks. Mumbai’s security is handled by the Maharashtra State Security Corporation do a good job too. Bangalore, Chennai and Gurgaon employ Private Security agencies who, depending on the situation, may or may not be great.

But this will be a herculean task across bus stops right? Maybe, but there can be a workaround for this.

A simple workaround would be installing CCTV cameras in public spaces, starting with Bus Stations, Railway Stations, Malls, Shopping Areas, etc. where the public throngs in huge numbers. This can then be gradually rolled out to other sections of the city.

An addition to this would be using an Infrared camera along with the CCTV camera. An infrared camera is able to capture images in low light which a normal camera would not be able to see. Along with this, a thermal image scanner can also be employed. A thermal scanner will show the monitoring guards, different heat levels of anything within range. Combined with the CCTV and Infrared, it might help pinpoint explosive devices or weapons. Of course, installing lakhs of them across each bus stop would be a pain. The plus side is that this set-up can then be used for tracking buses, as well as curbing violations of traffic rules.

What do you say?

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