Only Decentralisation Can Fix India’s Urban Transport

While having coffee with a couple of old friends a few days ago, an argument broke out on whether Bangalore, Delhi or Mumbai has the worst options for ...

Local knowledge is critical in designing and managing an efficient urban transport system

While having coffee with a couple of old friends a few days ago, an argument broke out on whether Bangalore, Delhi or Mumbai has the worst options for commuting. As you may have guessed, there was no winner.

It is well acknowledged that the Indian public transport system is fundamentally inadequate to provide decent service to the people. Indeed, millions of people rely on the antiquated and inefficient public transport because they have no other option. Reliable, cheap and efficient connectivity between the people is necessary for economic growth, and that’s why we see expanding cities and shrinking villages.

Major improvements are required to make public transport practical for all. Our roads are narrow, congested and of low quality. Millions of Indians in our cities spend more than three hours on the daily commute. Major Indian cities are on the top of the list when it comes to worst traffic conditions in the world. These conditions persist despite government’s allocation of huge sums of money for development of infrastructure. The Central Government alone is slated to spend almost ₹ 6 lakh crore to develop roads, airports, railways, ports and inland waterways.

The major impediment to improving the public transport systems in India is not the lack of resources, it is the lack of local knowledge in their development and management. Urban local governance is still a distant dream in India even after 25 years of 74th Constitutional Amendment that envisaged urban self-government. Our local bodies are completely dependent on the financial assistance of the State or the Central Government.

The local trains in Mumbai are run by the Ministry of Railways from Delhi, and Mumbaikars have no say in their administration. Our highways are built not based on the needs of their users but on the decisions of bureaucrats at the National Highway Authority of India. The result of such misguided initiatives are clear, we have highways that have no people using them on one hand, and no roads where we actually need them one on the other. Similarly, the Indian railways often run empty trains on routes to nowhere while major urban centres are not connected with enough trains.

All such problems arise due to the lack of information which only local people can provide. Only actual users of public transport facilities know what roads, canals, trains, ports and airports are needed in their localities. It is the time that the Central Government realises this problem and let the local governments take key decisions on providing public transport.

What is the point of paying taxes to the Centre and the Centre doling it out on projects which we may or may not need in our cities and neighbourhood? It would be better, cheaper and efficient to use our money locally in choosing the best possible options for our commute.