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Monday, March 24, 2008

a critique on BRTS

The following is the full text of the comments under 'guest column' on page 2 of TOI today.

Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) when operated with high capacity buses gets to be called High Capacity Bus System (HCBS).

Curitiba in Brazil supposedly pioneered this model, following the 'success' of which quite a few other cities across the world have adopted it. In India, a team of technocrats from IIT, Delhi have been advocating this model from long, and as a result, the city of New Delhi has just about launched this scheme along one route, with a few more set to follow soon. The Delhi experiment has been receiving a lot of flak in the local media, which the supporters of the model would like to label as the propaganda by METRO/ MONO - rail, and automobile lobbies.

Now, whether BRTS or HCBS, both call for dedicated lanes in the centre of a given road. Allowing for 20 + 20 ft for the dedicated lanes on either side of a 10 ft wide median to accommodate the bus stops, it will leave just 50 ft for everything else on a 100 ft (between the outer edges of the drains on either side) road, like the one in Indiranagar. Thus, after providing for 20 ft lanes on either side for the general traffic, which by themselves are going to be terribly crammed, you will be left with a balance of 5 ft on either edges for drains, foot-paths, utility lines, etc. Plainly, that will mean the end of the majestic trees along this road.

The question further is how many roads do you have of this width in Bangalore?

Now, going by plain logic, supposing in any given route direction, BMTC is operating at a frequency of a bus every 3 minutes, and the buses are moving at an average speed of 10 kmph, there will be a gap of 500 M between any two buses. As such, if a lane is dedicated exclusively for the buses, it will then push out 100 other vehicles from this 500 M stretch (making for 200 vehicles per km), assuming an average vehicle length of 5M, and near bumper-to-bumper traffic conditions. This is total under utilisation of high demand city road space. If the cost of this much of land is factored into the project costing, particularly in cities like Bangalore, then the differential between the METRO-rail and the HCBS will narrow considerably.

The above apart, the access structures to the bus stops on the central median, can be fairly complicated and costly, particularly if you are following the Curitiba model. Also, while getting the traffic to move smoothly along straight road stretches is generally not a serious issue, the challenge is in getting them to negotiate the junctions smoothly. In this, the BRTS, for all its engineering, fails to provide satisfactory solutions.

There is a telling picture of a stretch of road in some city, which has adopted the model, showing an empty stretch of over 100M behind a bus on a dedicated lane, even as the adjoining lane (in the same direction) is totally cluttered with vehicles of all kinds, particularly two-wheelers. Very clearly, even with having introduced the HCBS on dedicated lanes, it has not caused citizens to switch from the use of their two-wheelers, leading to the problems aggravating even further.

Thus, while dedicated lanes may be OK on stretches leading to and from bus depots, or on stretches where the frequency is higher than say a bus every 15 seconds, on regular roads, they are totally ill-advised. Rather than dedicated lanes, total ban on private vehicles (meaning - vehicles other than buses, taxi's and auto's) on select stretches, during peak hours, would any day be preferable.

All these apart, BRT schemes are invariably envisaged as operations by Companies promoted by Municipalities, with 'artificial monopoly' (as different from natural monopoly situations, like in the case of power distribution) franchises being tendered out for different districts/ routes. In the case of the Indore city set up, for example (a presentation on which was made in Bangalore recently), the Company takes all decisions with regard to routes, fares, types of buses, schedules, etc, with hardly any discretion being left to the service providers. While the revenue generation out of cash sales comes straight into the hands of the individual operators, out of the earnings from sale of monthly passes (which are managed by the Company), a fixed sum of the order of Rs 22,000/- per bus per month is made over to them. If the targets are not achieved, which could very well happen considering the various kinds of forces at play, it will eventually lead to a subsidy regime.

Also, with far too many controls and restrictions still in place, I expect, TATA's, TVS's would still want to keep a safe distance, leaving the field to the local mafia chieftains to play ball with the Company authorities, more or less like the PWD operations in most states.

All in all, BRTS is not exactly a satisfactory model. In the case of Bangalore, the Bangalore Metropolitan Land Transport Authority (BMLTA) has been instituted. There is a proposal to strengthen and broad-base it. Once that is in done, what Bangalore needs to do is to facilitate the entry of players of the stature of TATA's and TVS's to provide the services in open competition with the BMTC, on a level playing field, with the minimum of restrictions. Public bus transport services today is too vital an infrastructure area not to have the competent services of such players.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


The World Customers' Day was observed by BESCOM in its usual ritualistic style on Saturday, the 15th March by holding a workshop on 'Customer Care', in association with Public Affairs Centre (PAC), Swabhimana, Consumer Advocacy, and Karnataka Electricity Regulatory Commission (KERC). Of the audience of a 100 odd people, only some 30 were members of Civil Society groups (RWA's, etc), the rest comprising mostly of BESCOM officials. Seeing this, the chief guest, Dr Samuel Paul, Chairman, PAC, remarked that the poor turn out was perhaps an indication of the high level of satisfaction with BESCOM services.

I wish to submit here that such statements by people of the stature of Dr Paul tend to convey a totally wrong picture compared to the actual position obtaining on the ground. Granted that the services may have improved compared to what it was a few years ago. But, Bangalore today produces goods and provides services of the highest quality to its clientele right across the globe. For such a city, the interruption-ridden service of BESCOM is nowhere near good enough. And, it is not as if better level of service is not possible in the Indian context, or anything like that. Cities such as Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Surat, Kolkata, Greater Noida, enjoy far better quality of power supply. This is evidenced by the fact that, while Bangalore is currently a Rs 1500 cr market for gensets, inverters, converters, batteries, emergency lamps, candles, match-sticks, and what have you, these products have a marginal presence, if at all, in the cities listed. And, now, New Delhi is all set to join them. The reason for the same is also not too far to seek - while Bangalore is served by the government-owned BESCOM, all the other cities are served by companies in the private sector. Need one elaborate further?

The apologists would immediately go on to talk about BESCOM's social responsibility of having to cater to the needs of the rural sector. But, then is it doing any better than its counterparts in the other states in this aspect? The records do not show anything like that, either. In effect, whereas in Karnataka, the people in both the cities as well as in the rural areas have to suffer the incapacity of the government agency, people in cities like Mumbai get the benefit of quality power supplied by private sector companies even as their rural brethren may not be in such a privileged position. Perhaps that is the idea of social justice of Karnataka politicos! But, in today's competitive world, can a city afford this?

Ironically, however, in Karnataka itself, there has existed from long an excellent model for sustainable rural power distribution in the form of the Hukeri Co-op Society in Belgaum district. The Society buys power in bulk at high voltage from the Karnataka Power Transmission Corporation (KPTCL), arranges its distribution, collects money, and remits it to KPTCL on time, thus ensuring quality power supply from them, and, in the process, keeping everyone including the many farmer members totally happy. Where this model may not be feasible, particularly in geographically isolated communities, stand alone solar systems are a far more sensible option, than running kilometers of transmission lines. Very clearly, therefore, the rural sector load has been pooled in by BESCOM only to provide a convenient scapegoat to mask its poor planning and management.

Coming back to the workshop - now, if people do not turn up in sufficient numbers at such meetings, it is not because they are satisfied with the services, it is plainly because of the futility of complaining to a government agency. Those who can afford have made alternate arrangements, and those that can't are any way voiceless. One would have thought organizations like PAC, Swabhimana, Consumer Advocacy, and even the KERC would bother to speak up for the voiceless.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Business of Governance

With concepts like Autonomy, Sustainable growth, Forward Planning, HRD, etc becoming buzz-words in management circles, government babu’s couldn’t quite stomach the idea of being left out. So, they managed sponsorships for themselves to attend various seminars, workshops, and even full-time MBA courses, and worse still started introducing these concepts into their respective domains/ departments, irrespective of whether they fitted in with the overall government policy or not. Now, very clearly, at least in the earlier times, much of the content in an MBA course, for instance, was tailored to Corporates, with very little of it being applicable to government administration (Later, of course, IIMs, particularly Ahmedabad and Bangalore, started specific courses tailored to government administration). But, with the babu’s pursuing with them all the same, the damage slowly started getting done.

Time was when the Electricity Board (the predecessor of the BESCOM), and the BWSSB would give their respective connections only after the Occupancy Certificate was issued by the local Municipal authority, thereby ensuring compliance with the building by-laws to a much greater extent than today. Down the years, with the babu’s turning into management experts, the Boards started looking at themselves as ‘profit centres’, and the checks and balances of the earlier regime just crumbled, bringing in in its wake the chaos of the present day.

The sad part however is that controls continue in many other areas, pushing these organizations to the receiving end on very many fronts. The KPTCL and the ESCOMS (successors to the Electricity Board), for instance, do not have the power to charge remunerative rates to the farming sector, this leading to a subsidy regime whereby they have become totally dependent on the government. Similar is the case with water supplies to EWS colonies/ areas.

And, this is not confined just to power and water supply sectors. The Transport Department, for instance, draws up its annual budget based on the growth plan for its staff, the revenue shortfall being made up by release of fresh licenses for autorickshaws, unmindful of the additional chaos that it wreaks on the already dismal city traffic scenario. The Pollution Control Board charges its so-called ‘consent fees’ in far higher proportion compared to the actual work it is required to do, and blows up the revenue generated in putting up fancy office complexes in prime commercial locations. And, so on.

The imperative need of the day is for the government to redefine its role to being a facilitator, and thereafter as the regulator, for which it necessarily has to give up its role as a player. Simultaneously, it needs to become far leaner in its operations, down-sizing itself drastically wherever required, as also evolving a cost plus approach compared to the present revenue oriented approach.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Those were the days, my friend

1) Owning a telephone connection was considered a luxury. You had to apply to the monopoly Telephone department, and wait for years together for your number to come up. And finally, when it did come up, the lineman will pose a problem saying that spare ‘cable pairs’ were unavailable, and that you will have to wait till a new cable is laid. If you take the hint, and pull out a Rs 100/- note, the cable pair will suddenly make its appearance. But, it will be at least another three days and a few more Rs 100/- notes before you get the connection proper. And, with the first rain (actually, even a breeze would do), it will go dead. As a result, you needed to ‘cultivate’ your lineman if you wanted a semblance of connectivity maintained.

As compared to that, in this ‘kali kaala’, you have the AIRTELs and VODAFONEs offering you connections within hours - and, attending to complaints, also within hours. Against a complaint I had once lodged at around 7 PM, I was shocked to find an AIRTEL technician at my door at 8 PM, attending to the job most professionally, and leaving without even waiting for a thank you from me. It was in a way insulting to think that, unlike in the days of yore, he didn’t care a damn for your bakshish. These companies are re-writing the equations between the workers and the sahibs.

2) Well, of course, in the good old days, there was no internet, and you had to find some newspaper or magazine editor to publish your whines, and consequently, the world was spared of them to that extent.

In this ‘kali kaala’, you are burdened with all the whines from various quarters, on top of all the info, all because of the net.

3) It was the age of the Ambassador and Fiat (later called Premier/ Padmini) cars. Every morning, you had to open the bonnet of the car and check the radiator and battery water levels, apart from the air pressure levels in the tyres – brought about a sense of discipline in you, and generally did not allow you to take your car for granted. Even with all that, breakdowns were frequent, and consequently, women rarely ventured to drive around by themselves.

As compared to that, in this ‘kali kaala’, we find even pint-sized women driving around confidently in battle tank sized SUV’s, competing with BMTC buses in pushing the scooterists out of the road. That was essentially a male domain! It hurts my manly ego! What a tragedy!

4) And, of course, the BAJAJ scooters – the favourite dowry item for a government babu bride-groom. One morning, I remember seeing the over mile-long queue in front of Khivraj motors on Kasturba road. I initially thought it was for booking tickets for some cricket match at the adjoining Chinnaswamy stadium. It turned out that it was for booking the latest model of BAJAJ scooter, the process for which was to begin that day – delivery to be made about a year later.

Likewise, you had to know an insider to get a JAWA motorbike released to you out of turn. The only other bike available was the ROYAL ENFILD - BULLET, which most mortals found to be too heavy.

As against that, you just walk into any of the many showrooms, and pick up a bike of your choice, from amongst an array of models available, in just hours. The contribution of this factor to making today’s ‘kali kaala’ has perhaps been the biggest.

5) In the days of yore, if you wanted to go to Bombay (tears well up in my eyes over nostalgia over that name, sigh!!!) in a hurry, you needed to have ‘cultivated’ the Indian Airlines (the monopoly, government-owned, service provider) clerk at the check in counter to push you through, out of turn. And, anyway, it was only the well-heeled who could afford the cost of air travel.

Today, you just sit at home, select from a bargain of offers available on the net, make the payment through your card, print out the ticket, and in a few hours, you are on board the aircraft. So much so, you now have every Amar, Akbar, Antony flying all over, even just for the fun of it, without a care in the world for the contribution they are making to global warming. Indeed, how terrible!!!

6) The traditional Hibiscus flower was in just one deep red colour. Likewise, Bougenvillae was a reddish pink, and many other flowers had their standard colours.

The kali world of today, playing around with plant genetics, has produced these plants flowering in a riot of colours, trampling on age-old traditions without a care - blasphemous indeed!!! That apart, I keep getting nightmares over what fate awaits us all for tinkering around with what God had originally ordained.

7) Drawing your money from the bank was easily a half-day exercise – waiting around in long queues, particularly on Mondays. It provided a great opportunity to mingle amongst the local community.

Today, you just go to the ATM, round the block, and in a matter of minutes, you are loaded. So much so, every one, particularly the youth, is just blowing away money, like there’s no tomorrow, leading to an overall cultural change – all for the worse, of course! God help us!!!

8) Oh yes – the idiot box! No, it has become that only now. Those days the monopoly Doordarshan showed you only virtuous programmes like Ramayana, Mahabharata, etc, apart from ‘Krishi Darshan’ for the valiant ‘kisaan’s’. So, you had no chance of getting corrupted.

Now, with so many channels, particularly the most vulgar American ones like FRIENDS, BAY WATCH, etc, our youth are getting totally corrupted.

9) Also, time was when mornings started off with ‘Venkateswara Suprabhatam’ on the radio, going on to ‘desh bhakti’ songs rendered soulfully by the likes of Lata Mangeshkar (which moved the late Jawaharlal Nehru to tears), and ending the day with aesthetically romantic (usually on failed romances - sob, sob!) numbers by the likes of Madhubala. The culture and traditions were truly protected as long as things were in the hands of the venerated All India Radio.

Now, particularly with the advent of the FM, we are bombarded day-in and day-out with plain noise in the name of music. And, the lyrics, if at all they can be called that, particularly of the imports from that den of vulgarity, the US, are plain blasphemy. On top of it all, the ‘foreign hand’ is inexorably pushing for entry of the FM lot into news broadcast area, which is certain to cause havoc to the country’s unity and integrity.

In the midst of all these, what is noticeable is that there are the following few areas, which have remained unchanged, or changed just marginally.

1) Power supply
2) Water supply
3) Sewage management, & Sanitation
4) Roads & related infrastructure
5) Public bus transport services

And, what is common about all of them is the fact that they are all handled by the government.

Moral of the story then clearly is that if you want things as in the golden days of yore, leave them be in the hands of the government – that is, subscribe to ‘Socialism’.

One may further argue as to why complicate life even to the extent it was during the golden era – why not go back to the caves? Yes, indeed, how romantic an idea!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

unleashing the genie

The auctioning of cricketers by the BCCI to the IPL teams, has led to all kinds of reactions from the public, particularly the ones who do not understand the language of the market. Excerpts from a posting in a ‘Greens’Yahoo-Group read as below:

Should the big barons of India even pay a fraction of the monies being given to cricket, to the forest guards, they would be a happy lot and be motivated to protect our forest treasures. Instead we see some humans being treated as treasures.

It will be argued that all these monies will be taxed and more money will be in the government coffers, and that can be used to nurture and protect the forests. But a gesture from Corporates (towards protecting our forests) would make such a dramatic and powerful statement of concern about the environment.

Though I speak about cricketing issues, I want to highlight the extent of money that seems to lie in corporate India, and their utter lack of involvement in environment issues.

I responded as below:

Until some five years back, the wind energy sector in the country was hardly known even to exist. Somewhere along, some Finance Minister provided the necessary incentives, and with that, the sector has today gone on to become a significant player in the economy of the country, with Mr Tanti of SUZLON even getting listed amongst the richest men in the country.

Likewise, there was talk some time back of incentives to be provided for Arid land forestry development. It created quite a buzz in the industry circles, and was all set to catch on. Companies like ITC (which prides itself as the only company of its size in the world to be Carbon positive, Water positive, and having close to zero solid waste discharge) had lined up major action. But, apparently, the government goofed up somewhere, and all the plans fell apart.

If the industry has to make a contribution, the government needs to facilitate that through proper policy initiatives. That is its role. Instead, when it takes on the role of providing services and producing goods on itself, it just messes up every thing, besides becoming the dog in the manger.