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Buses, cars & the class cleavage

A recent PIL against the BRT corridor brings to light deep-rooted class-based prejudices, reports Tanushree Bhasin

Tanushree Bhasin  27th Oct 2012

An intersection on the BRT corridor between Ambedkar Nagar and Moolchand

ot, then, despite the myriad pronouncements of editorial writers and headline-givers, an "irrational decision". That was the judgment that came from the Delhi High Court, on 18th October, and it was unequivocal. The case they were trying dealt with an issue that has cleaved Delhi society by class — as if those boundaries needed further reinforcement — the implementation of the 5.8 km Ambedkar Nagar-Moolchand Bus Rapid Transit corridor.

The judgment came in response to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed in January this year against the BRT by an NGO that goes by the name of Nyay Bhoomi. The petition argued that the BRT had led to "traffic snarls" and impossibly inconvenienced the large number of cars using that road, instead favouring a disproportionately small number of buses. The PIL cites data from 2010, arguing that 29,849 buses are plying in Delhi, while there are 63,75,033 other motorised vehicles, such as cars, taxis and two- and three-wheelers. The PIL does not offer information about the number of car-users versus bus-users that might be on this road, instead preferring to focus on the number of vehicles. The reasoning behind this, as the PIL goes on to make clear, is that the NGO believes that the time of car-owners – "who are generally wealth creators, such as managers, directors etc." – is more valuable than that of bus-users. Delhi High Court did not buy this argument, and the judgment has invigorated the Delhi Government's plan to allocate 14 new BRT corridor projects, divided between the Public Works Department (PWD) and the Delhi Integrated Multi Modal Transit System Ltd (DIMTS), giving the project a new lease of life.

The government has directed the PWD to prepare detailed project reports (DPR) on the seven corridors earmarked for it, spanning a distance of 105 km. "We are in the process of appointing consultants and conducting feasibility studies for the seven corridors allotted to us," said Deepak Panwar, a PWD spokesperson. The seven corridors include Mukundpur to Palam More, ISBT Kashmere Gate to Shahi Idgah, Sarai Kale Khan to Jor Bagh, National Stadium to Ghazipur, Narela to Azadpur, ISBT Anand Vihar to Connaught Place, and Kirby Place to Tilak Nagar.

According to the DIMTS, the new corridors will have longer bus platforms, wide non-motorised vehicle lanes on both sides, table top pedestrian crossings, bus priority at signals, provision for on street parking, cycle stands, and integration between BRT, ISBT and Metro stations.

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Hazards Centre conducted a parallel survey that claimed that even though the number of buses may be less than 6%, they carry up to 66% of the commuters during peak hours.

A DIMTS official (who asked not to be named in this article) specified that the plans are not rigid and are developed based on the specific needs of a given area. "The Shastri Nagar corridor, for instance, runs along a river side, therefore it makes no sense to have the bus lane in the centre of the road as there are no left or right turns", he said. Similarly, in the Karabul Nagar area, the traffic demands have necessitated the building of a flyover even though it is not technically a part of the BRT plan. "The main design challenges for such corridors arise due to the presence of a high volume of motor vehicles, limited road width, heavy congestion, and encroachments." he added.

The installation of the BRT has proven to be difficult worldwide, notably in other societies riven by income inequality, such as South Africa, with affluent car owners registering their disapproval against a BRT between Soweto and the more affluent parts of Johannesburg. In Delhi the BRT garnered a deluge of unfavourable publicity almost from its inception. A cursory Google search reveals a neverending list of headlines like "Delhi reeling under BRT mess", "BRT to become traffic cops' headache", "BRT fiasco in Delhi". In a thought-provoking article written for the left-of-centre blog Kafila, Aarti Sethi looked at the reportage on BRT and suggested that accidents on the BRT were "presented as a result of inherent flaws in the structure of the road" (for example, 'BRT claims another life') as opposed to other accidents, that were attributed to human error. The editor of a popular daily in Delhi went so far as to describe the BRT as a leftist conspiracy to 'bring socialism to the streets'.

That the BRT cuts through the richest and most influential residential areas in South Delhi, an area that houses a large proportion of the city's more influential journalists, didn't help. "These affluent, car-owning neighbourhoods have their own vested interests. That is why only this stretch of the BRT was covered by the media and not the stretch between Chirag Delhi and Ambedkar Nagar, which is populated by a poorer class," said Dunu Roy, director of the Hazards Centre, a Delhi-based NGO.Image 2nd

The BRT's opponents have been unrelenting in their hostility. What emerges from this conflict is a clear account of the political economy of transport in Delhi. The Chirag Dilli area has been under the spotlight mainly because it is clogged with exceptionally high traffic. While the reasons for this congestion are many, it is the BRT that became the scapegoat in the emerging blame game. "The area has witnessed spectacular development in past few years with the construction of malls and restructuring of junctions. No infrastructure development was done and instead the BRT was blamed for causing traffic problems" says a senior DIMTS official.

While the court sanctioned the Central Road Research Institute (CRRI) to analyse the problems of the BRT corridor, Hazards Centre rejected its findings as biased, conducting a parallel survey that claimed that even though the number of buses may be less than 6%, they carry up to 66% of the commuters during peak hours. Conversely, 77% of the vehicles on the BRT may be cars or two-wheelers but they carry only 26% of the commuters. The report also states that accidents on the BRT are due to unregulated pedestrian crossings and speeding, indicating poor traffic policing and not intrinsic faults with the BRT. The survey also finds that 94% bus users, 30% car users, 86% two-wheeler users, and 92% pedestrians agree that the BRT should be continued.

Col. B.B. Sharan, the president of Nyay Bhoomi, however feels differently. Rejecting the court's decision as flawed and subjective, Sharan insists that the BRT should be scrapped as it violates the Delhi Master Plan 2021, which specifies that the road width required to construct a BRT should be 45m, while the BRT has been built on a 30m wide road. "There should not be any exclusive lane for buses. Most of the time the bus lane remains completely empty while cars get stuck in narrow lanes for long durations of time," he opines.

ased on research conducted by his NGO, Sharan suggests that for every bus in its lane, 50 motorised vehicles are able to pass in the car lane, reflecting a complete waste of road space. "Why not give more space to cars which have to wait in long queues, wasting time and precious petrol. I can assure you that not a single person has shifted to public transport as a result of the BRT. People want convenience, that is why they buy cars," he said.

While the Nyay Bhoomi PIL gathered support from car owners, it was trashed by activists. "The court should not have entertained this as a public interest writ in the first place. A writ is supposed to seek relief in cases where constitutional rights have been violated; and constitutional rights are entitlements of citizens, not vehicles," said Roy.Image 3rd

The bench dismissed the PIL, stating that they "frown upon the argument which is elitist i.e. those who generate wealth being entitled to a larger share of the public resource." It further notes, "even if we were to accept the argument that, as of today, with the implementation of the BRT corridor, some inconvenience is being caused across the board to everybody, we have to keep in mind that planning is always long-term and the fruits of the labour and sweat invested today may not be available in immediate future."

Advocates of the BRT argue that its logic is irrefutable. Roy suggests that the BRT's performance should be assessed against the three objectives set out in the Supreme Court judgment of 2005. "The BRT has definitely provided access to cost-effective and rapid public transport, reduced congestion in the corridor, and lowered the levels of pollution," he said. Activists insist that the sanctioning of new corridors across the city allows for the system to finally fall into place. "Would we judge the metro a success or a failure with only one line, or a few stations? The BRT will work when one will be able to cover long stretches entirely by the corridor," says Gautam Bhan, who teaches at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements.

Different countries have adopted varied approaches while dealing with the rising challenges of urban transportation. Bangkok prioritised private vehicle owners and built wide roads and large flyovers, while Zurich accorded precedence to pedestrians, creating 10m wide footpaths and 8m wide roads. Ultimately what emerges as the deciding factor for urban transport policy is the question of whose needs are to be prioritised. "We designed the BRT to improve the safety and comfort of all road users, particularly those who do not have the convenience of private vehicles. We should not abandon this effort half way" says Geetam Tiwari, an IIT professor who helped design the BRT corridors.

The BRT experiment in Delhi is perhaps one the few instances where the sacrifices for the greater common good have to be made by the rich. As forests are razed for SEZs and villages are submerged for dams, the rich have proven to be intolerant of anything that inconveniences their comfortable upper-class lifestyle. The BRT, as it stands today, is not perfect. But the judgment is one indication that the stranglehold of the elite is slowly being prised open.

 
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