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The future of public transport in India in the post COVID world

Ranabir Bhattacharyya


For any country, smooth seamless transport is considered to be a hallmark of growth and development. In the last few decades, megacities around the world have given much stress on mass transport as a means to curb air pollution and other health hazards. Different protocols have been implemented in India and other countries as part of ‘Green Governance’. But COVID – 19 has presented a unique scenario to the entire transport system around the world. The infection rate of the deadly virus has been alarmingly high. As many countries are unlocking the lockdown phase in several steps, India too faces a tricky scenario. COVID protocol calls for maintaining social distancing, which doesn’t necessarily sync with the general picture of Indian transport system.

Although safety comes first in any transport system, the Corona episode has presented the need to have a totally healthy system altogether. Maintaining COVID protocol is not easy – not only does it call for the use of masks and sanitizers on a mandatory basis, but also raises a heartening cry for social distancing. If social distancing has to be maintained in common, public vehicles like buses, autorickshaws, the metro and trains, norms have to be in place to strictly impose specific figures in case of the commuters who are going to avail them. In the case of a densely populated country like India, with such a huge population, this demands massive change. Either the government has to arrange additional vehicles or people would have to buy vehicles on their own. If public vehicles are asked to transport lesser commuters, following social distancing norms, they are bound to run at a loss even if they charge a higher fare. This makes way for the question: Should the government allot more subsidy to the vehicle owners to tackle this crisis phase?

In India, most people including those belonging to the unorganized sector cannot afford private vehicles other than cycles. For long distances, cycles are of no use. Already many people have lost their jobs as a direct consequences of the COVID – 19 crisis. In such a scenario, an increase in bus or auto fares presents a bigger crisis. After all, work from home is applicable only for those whose work largely relying on the digital world. In India, not every city has separate cycle lanes for bicycle travel. In case more people start relying on cycles, the traffic departments would have to focus on mending their strategies. Let’s not forget that India witnesses a huge upsurge of road accidents year after year. The present trend of buying two wheelers is understandable but it isn’t the solution at all.

There is a popular saying among economists that public transport can create and maintain jobs faster than other transportation investments. The present Narendra Modi government has prioritized rail-road infrastructure. But the COVID-19 scenario is very tricky and the transport issue may escalate the prices of everyday commodities. The government needs to come up with a robust strategy to handle the situation. Or else, many people may end up contracting the deadly coronavirus, pushing the society towards the biggest healthcare crisis one can imagine. From economic and socio-political perspective, the whole issue has to be handled with the utmost concern, especially in a country like India. Technology of the day should aim at the greatest good of the greatest number promoting aggressive mass welfare.

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