Right of innocent passage: A pillar of democracy

Successive governments in India have tried to hinder mobility, slowing development and denying citizens basic rights and dignities. Here is a citizens’ agenda

Veeresh Malik | February 2, 2015




Speaking about Kolkata with a familiar and sometimes dismissive shrug comes easy to many. But I know this: here is one city where public transport has the ultimate right of way, probably the best in India.

Consider the electric tram ringing its fire-engine bell indignantly if you dare to bring your rubber tyres in its path. Or the fact that Kolkata’s Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose airport is the only large airport in the country where city and airport special buses come right up to the departure and arrival terminals to pick up and drop passengers AND connect them to railway stations as well as bus terminals. Or the reality that metered taxies are the cheapest in the country and mostly do not refuse fares.

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What’s even more satisfying to observe is that traffic police gives priority to buses. The airport and railway stations encourage vehicles that have dropped passengers to get back into the line for arriving passengers. Local trains, though overcrowded, have such a wide network. All this in a city going through political and economic turmoil of a sort not seen in India for a while.

This is not the case in many other parts of India, certainly not the airports of Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai, which make it difficult to connect to buses and trains. The Bengaluru airport grudgingly makes space for luxury buses, which are getting progressively more expensive. None of them operate ‘normal’ city buses to the airport either.

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This was not always the case. Delhi used to have a dozen bus routes, including route 727 from right outside my house near Moolchand, which would drop the passenger bang at the landside for both domestic and international terminals. Mumbai had BEST buses as well as ex-servicemen-operated special buses to Nariman Point and the railway stations. And Bengaluru’s HAL airport had city buses within walking distance of the exit doors.

Matter of fact, Delhi is probably the only airport of any capital city in the world where airline staff are spotted standing at the exit ramps, hitch-hiking towards the highway. And at some other airports, even trying to commence a bus service from the airport leads to violent reactions and political interference of the most amazing sort.

Airports are given special pride of place in this report as they appear to provide an inkling of the top-down thinking on how to treat public transport in India. Many airports, for example, will have railway stations along at least one periphery, but no connectivity. The people who make rules for the rest of the country now only use airports connected, preferably at the gangway off the aircraft, to cars.

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Nothing else exists for them, the view from inside an airplane is as disconnected from reality as is the view from inside their car, with minimum distance between the transfer. Presumably, they think this is how it is for the rest of India. Think about it: when was the last time a president, a prime minister – you can work downwards to almost every lawmaker in India – ever had to make an unassisted transfer between different modes of transport?

I know a few lawmakers, and it has been a while since not just they but their close family members and friends have had the occasion or reason to use public transport, or to change one mode of public transport to another (it is called an inter-modal transfer). The disconnect is complete – their conversations revolve around airport lounges and super cars. If you don’t believe this, check out the parking lots of airports and parliament, the ones where the VIPs park their buggies.

This is like in the days of the British raj, and also before that, when the Mughals were in power. When unimpeded travel of people and goods was a privilege granted to people after the rulers had fought to achieve that right for themselves. That’s the argument, at least, that I was presented a few days ago by the offspring of a royal family originally from Punjab, which has been in Bengal for over 400 years. And they have plenty of roads and railway stations named after themselves, so they should know! (Burdwan, the royal family, were originally Kapoors from Punjab.)

So emerged from there that free and innocent passage of people and goods after that was subject to all forms of tolls, taxes, royalties, zakats, octrois and more. Movement was a privilege for which people had to pay. It was also a damned good way of keeping the peasants in their place, which was usually close to sub-human, and that’s a simple truth too. Cannot travel, cannot sell goods or service, can only consume and will therefore remain forever in penury and servitude. This has been the basic model of ruling over India for centuries.

It continues to-date. In our political system, democracy and elections mean, as far as possible, that people should be prevented from doing better. Stop them from entering what is called the troublesome, thinking middle class. A class capable of trading goods and services across the country! It is the empowered middle class that demanded freedom from the British raj, demanded independence.

The decades of Indian National Congress-inspired tweedle-dee-dee and tweedle-dee-dum rulers was a system of transport all over India with its permits and barriers and taxes and documents, making life difficult for commercial traffic to move not just between states but often even between districts. This becomes worse when more states are formed, incidentally, in case you had not noticed.

To this loss of efficiency in movement of people and commerce, add the fact that the powers that be treated public transport as a revenue generator, not as an instrument of social good for ordinary citizens. The latest modifications to the age-old motor vehicles Act appears to continue to do the same, with added emphasis especially on the rights of the private car over every other form of transport in India – land, water and air.

Luckily for us, transport by rail is on a different plane, unaffected by this blurred and opaque vision on the innocent passage of people and goods. But the railways, too, is not without its shares of problems lately. Railway stations are invariably scenes of manufactured chaos for the un-empowered, underprivileged citizen seeking to transit from train to bus, who make up about 95 percent of all rail passengers, if not more. Where buses should come closest to the platforms and exits, we invariably have VIP parking for government vehicles instead.

In any other democracy, these would have become severe tipping points in elections by now. In India, though, we appear to have become hard-wired after centuries of slavery to accept placidly these indignities heaped on us by an increasingly feudal and neocolonial ‘mai-baap’ government, which doles out favours as privileges instead of ensuring rights as part and parcel of good governance.

History tells us – as also common sense, so you can hold the end you prefer – that sustainable regimes and civilisations are based on executed rights of free innocent passage of people and commerce across borders geographical and political, especially internal, village upwards. Where this was hampered, whole civilisations and cultures collapsed, simple as that.

The oceans were and remain the first mode of free and innocent passage. Transport in the air lanes is another arena where free and innocent passage is still unhindered, to some extent – if you are willing to overlook the shooting down of passenger aircraft over Ukraine or banned airspace over Iraq. These, though, are for international movements.

In India, for Indians, even these two mediums of transport are heavily regulated. The death of coastal shipping, the elimination of river transport, and the almost total extinction of private hobby flying, for example, are realities that have emerged in the last few decades after Independence. Why did this happen?

One reason is that our rulers cannot, as yet, collect tolls on ships transiting the oceans next to our coast. So, they make the ports for coastal traffic less efficient, thereby making it impossible to travel by ship along the coast. Before independence – and till as long as the ships lasted – we had ample sea connectivity along the western and eastern coasts of India, especially for cargo. There is nothing left of it now.

This kills any maritime tradition left in India. Which, as we all will know, is the bedrock of economic and external security. No domestic trade by sea, no people to conduct international trade on Indian flag ships. Everything then depends on a fighting navy.

The thing is, fighting navy ships are not entitled to free and innocent passage. They can traverse global waterways only under strict conditions of shielding weapons and communication systems, while doing so. The real fighting arms at sea have always been merchant ships. Our transport policies in India over the last few decades have killed this weapon brilliantly. Our enemies could not have done better.

Mercantile maritime training has been demolished in India, mercantile shipping of the coastal sort is almost extinct, and local fishermen are not encouraged to get into the natural next step, coastal trade, anymore. Just like the Indian government does on roads, fishing boats of one state cannot operate in another state any more.

Where is all this taking us?

It is taking us to a generation of decision makers and perception builders who have no idea of what the realities are. Lawmakers who will ban and block cyclists from using the naturally shortest and easiest paths, be they the Delhi-Noida-Delhi flyway, or the cycle track inside Lodhi gardens, or even by building huge flyovers without providing for level ground options below.

I wonder if any lawmaker in India has tried to use a flyover while riding a cycle. Doubtful, because if they had, they would have made some provisions for them on level ground below. Lawmakers give free, unhindered passage to private motor cars but bring in legislations that make inter-city buses stand in the same lines as trucks waiting to cross yet another barrier. Leave alone cost, it is the question of time lost now, which then makes people use more and more two-wheelers and cars. I wonder if any lawmaker has sat in a bus stopped at an entry tax barrier within the national capital region of Delhi. Doubtful, because if they had, they would have figured out the anger against them.

Luckily, the government has not yet managed to place too many barriers on the electronic highways of the internet. Which is where some solutions can emerge. If only more of us used the benefits of the electronic super-highways to provide increased frequency and amplitude to what should be a loud cacophony of protest about the way 99 percent of the country is being treated on the roads and waterways of India! Then we may have a chance. But most citizens tend to keep quiet about such indignities heaped on us.

Nowhere do I see the opposite of this more blatantly than in the Delhi Metro, which I use along with about 2.8 million other Indians. Within the Delhi Metro system, we are all equal, we have efficient movement despite strong security checks, with minimal hampering of the movement of people and commerce. Because of that, we tend to be better behaved and courteous inside the Delhi Metro system than we are outside.

I wish to repeat: we have equity there. There are no VVIPs. Nobody travels on a free pass.

The moment we exit the confines of the Metro, however, it is a different world. We are back to scrambling for what we can grab. The pavement goes to the pavement grabber, free passage goes to the terminator, and the corner behind the pillar goes to the urinator. The rest of the street – actually the rest of all public space – goes to whoever has the muscle or the strength of elected or selected representation.
That needs to change. Here is a list of things I want as a citizen:
 

  • Duly licensed public transport, be it buses or taxies, need to be exempted from all tolls and taxes that impede their free progress across all internal borders. Collect a consolidated sum of money in advance, if need be, but let them move freely.
     
  • Cyclists and pedestrians need to be top priority for traffic police – in deed, poll, law and practice. Empty words have no meaning or relevance. Top priority.

 

  • Bus lanes and BRTs don’t work if cycle paths become parking lots and pavements become bazaars. Ban private cars on some roads and see the effect, instead.

 

  • Reduce the number of government cars going all over the country for whatever reason. Perception and fact is that they are the biggest rule breakers.

 

  • Revive water transport, whether inland river or coastal, and the biggest issue here is safety and security of people and commerce on these vessels. This is a direct result of better maritime training, by traditional as well as institutional methods.

 

  • Most of all, get our elected and selected representatives, our lawmakers and those who misrule us in the name of governance, to use public transport. Somehow or the other.


Veeresh Malik started life as an army brat all over India. Worked in the merchant navy all over the world. After many twists and turns, he has settled down to travelling across India and writing about it.

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