OSD at the urban development ministery S K Lohia in an interview with Governance Now
Danish Raza | January 28, 2011
Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), the flagship project of the ministry of urban development, has completed five years. The project has facilitated modernisation of transport in 61 cities across the country. However, much more needs to be done to improve urban mobility. In an exclusive interview with Danish Raza, S K Lohia, officer on special duty (urban transport), ministry of urban development, talks about the milestones achieved and targets ahead. Edited excerpts:
JNNURM has completed five years. How do you assess the performance so far?
I would say, “Miles to go before we sleep”. The scope of work which requires to be done is mind-boggling. The urban transport sector requires an investment of around $600 billion (Rs 27 lakh crore) in the next 20 years. This is more than 60 percent of the total cost of urbanisation. What we have pumped in till now is too little to achieve our target. At the same time, there have been tremendous gains in the last five years.
First, JNNURM has brought urban transport to the forefront. A unified thinking on the subject of urban transport policy was missing earlier. Second, now we have modern intelligent transport system enabled buses running in 61 mission cities. This has provided an organised city bus service for the first time. I believe this is one of the greatest things to have happened to the urban transport in India.
BRTS (Bus Rapid Transit System), a project funded by the JNNURM and being implemented by ten cities, has also improved things. Ahmedabad has got international recognition for its BRTS.
Now there is serious thinking in terms of providing facilities for pedestrians and cyclists. Then there are reforms in urban transport which the cities need to undertake if they want to avail funds from the centre. These reforms have changed the way cities used to plan policies.
Therefore, while there is much more that needs to be achieved, steps are being taken in the right direction.
You said $600 billion will be required over the next 20 years. How will this money be spent?
We are looking at integration of land use and transport. This means making urban policies such as master plan etc of a city taking into consideration the average time an individual should take to travel from one point to another. At present, we first make the master plan and then try to fit the urban transport into it.
The second objective is to have a city which is more human. In Mumbai, the average time of travelling is 60-90 minutes. I call it ‘inhuman’. If you spend eight - ten hours working in office and four hours travelling, then what kind of personal life will you have?
What are the key challenges in enhancing urban mobility or in providing better transportation in the country?
First, a lot of capacity building needs to be done across the spectrum. To make our projects successful, it is necessary that our officials, at all levels, have the basic understanding of the entire situation. The second hindrance is the multiplicity of authorities. That creates difficulties. The third problem is that of lack of continuity. In Ahmedabad, it was possible to have a good BRTS in place because the same municipal commissioner stayed on for the entire period. When an official leaves and someone new takes over, he or she takes time to acclimatise to the projects and policies. In Indore, one district collector started the bus service. But when the next collector joined, he asked, “Main kya operator hun (am I an operator)?” So, perceptions and priorities vary.
The Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (UMTA) was supposed to be an umbrella authority covering everything under the ambit of urban transport. Some reports however claim that the states are not abiding by the UMTA and the decisions taken by this authority will be subject to approval by the government. Is that true?
The concept of the UMTA has been discussed for 30 years but its formation gathered pace only in the past four years following the formulation of the national urban transport policy.
Once UMTA is given a legislative framework, it will be effective. Some states have taken it as an executive order. Now, since the administrative reforms committee has also included UMTA as one of the items which has to be implemented within a year, I believe it has been mandated from various quarters. So, now, it is just a question of time.
How did the national urban transport policy lead to the UMTA?
Through the policy, the central government took a lead role in engaging all the states and cities in implementing it. Every policy remains on paper unless it is sweetened by central financial assistance. The central financial assistance available under the JNNURM catalysed this to happen quickly because we tied the release of instalments with the setting up of UMTA. And since JNNURM is a reform-based mission, the whole concept of reforms changed the picture. It engaged various states in a kind of competition. Otherwise, we used to have certain islands of excellence. I think all these things put together made it possible.
There are still towns and villages in the country with no road connectivity. In such a scenario, how do you see the idea of common mobility card?
Should we not pursue our space programmes because more than 30 percent of the population is living below poverty line? Can’t we leapfrog and lead? India has got the capacity to lead. We should not wait to initiate big projects till the time each and every individual is provided with basic amenities. We have a great advantage of old baggage not being there. When many of the advanced countries thought of doing it, they had the problem of old baggage. Hence, the changes were extremely difficult there.
The common mobility card is the next logical step on two counts: First, seamless integration of the modes of transport. Second, we had envisaged the smart card system when we launched the urban buses last year.
Today, the passengers are a harassed lot. Till we came out with the specifications of the urban buses, no authority, states or the centre, had concern for the urban passengers. The normal chassis was being used for buses. You had to be an athlete to catch the buses and travel in them. This continued for 60 years. With the bus specifications and central assistance, modern buses started plying across 40 cities and people have taken on to the JNNURM buses in a large way.
Why is it that despite various projects, including JNNURM, the government has not been able to provide affordable transport?
There are two things when it comes to fares: technical fare, which must be paid to the operator to make his functioning sustainable and public fare, which is charged from the public. Public fare is a matter of policy and it depends on a number of factors. Non-AC buses are competing with two-wheelers, the cost of operating which is around Re 1 per km. Metro rail can provide subsidised fare because around 35 percent of its revenue comes from non-fare boxes such as property development and advertisements. However, buses do not have this liberty. In fact, the services level benchmarks which we rolled out last year, talked about the financial sustainability of the buses. We have said that if you want to be in the level of service one, you have to generate 40 percent or more revenue from non-fare boxes.
Why can’t we allow advertisements in buses to generate revenue like the case in Metro?
For this, we should have a national advertisement policy. Or else, we would have hoardings and display boards of all sizes and it would not be a good picture. It will cause visual clutter.
We have been asking states and cities to come out with an advertisement policy wherein we have advertisements in intermediate public transport.
To know what it can do, let us take example of Pimpri-Chinchwada. The entire advertisement revenue of the city was around Rs one crore. They concentrated on BRTS in the way we had been saying. The advertising revenue jumped to Rs 18 crore in one year. That is the kind of jump which is possible. As another example, you can look at those bus shelters in Delhi carrying advertisements. These shelters are better, safer and attractive. Therefore, advertising revenue can definitely be tapped.
What about the advertisement of various government welfare schemes that we see on the back of the low-floor buses in Delhi?
This should be encouraged. Government should use public transport to increase awareness about its policies. To make this happen, all the government needs to do is make a policy saying that all the government advertisements will be carried on public transport. This policy can enhance awareness about government schemes and also generate revenue, thereby reducing the fares.
Recently, the planning commission said that the projects executed jointly by the centre and the states escape oversight, take time due to lack of coordination and often prove costly. What is your view?
Delhi Metro Rail Corporation is the first project in the country done jointly by the centre and the state. The project has been delivered within the given deadline and it did not exceed the budget. Statistics prove that many projects of public sector undertakings are not executed on time and that they exceed budgets. By virtue of making it a central PSU or state PSU is no guarantee that the project will be done smoothly.
As far as oversight is concerned, we have dual accountability in such projects as there is monitoring by the centre and as well as state government. Hence, there is no question of escaping oversight.
This interview first appeared in the December 1-15 issue of the Governance Now magazine (Vol.01, Issue 21).
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