Helping people travel faster and better with their dignity intact must be a priority for the government. It will improve growth, and confidence and trigger changes across all sectors writes Tasavur Mushtaq
Transportation has travelled a lot, historically. From pedestrian footfall to passenger flow, the phases over the decades have been phenomenal. As the evolution goes, elegance has changed and spaces have shifted. However, mobility is constant. While the distances travelled have been increased substantially, the travel time has been reduced significantly. In sync with the societal standards, different geographies have grown differently. With its own social, political, and economic limitations, Kashmir is no exception to this evolution of transport enterprise.
Known to have organized a traditional transport system in the past to ferry men and merchandise within the valley, the outside connectivity was confined, always. However, walking on foot remained a permanent feature and fashion. Later, with a confluence of convenience and style, two-wheelers were introduced and further paved the way for other modes of transportation.
As the transformation hit the roads, from the love of Lambretta to the reverence of Rajdoot, owning a two-wheeler defined status. The advent of Chetak scooters, Bajaj’s debut product, was the beginning of the scooter story. In between, four-wheelers found space on the streets and the Maruti 800 emerged as one of the most successful cars.
Subsequently, there were interventions on many fronts. Successively, the situation changed to a larger extent. A lot of water flowed. The mud turned to metal. Spaces swapped. Means multiplied. Modes modified. Convenience emerged as a new criterion.
With changing primacies, otherwise in rarity, owning a vehicle became a priority. Personal choices apart, the effect was on the commercial aspect as well. Mostly seen on the roads in the early 1990s, a 56-seater bus, nicknamed gaamgaedh was replaced by smaller and swifter vehicles. The new routes were defined. Older roads lost relevance. Streets started to get stuck.
However, the concept of convenience to the larger population has not seen the light of the day in Kashmir. Besides, the public transport system is in shambles, and the private players too have ruined the roads. Adding to the crisis, people travelling by their own vehicles have another story to share.
Day in and day out, there are complaints of varied nature. From gridlocks to overcharging, non-availability on certain routes and mushroom growth on others, lack of discipline, no regard for timings, and the choice to pick and drop. The words would end, but not the mess. The point lies, that in Kashmir, the systemic reforms seem compromised. What could be the worst scenario than witnessing the complete failure of the state’s own transport corporation?
Unlike major cities of India, Kashmir’s Road Transportation Corporation, one of the oldest corporations in India was never a sustained success story. The only consistent news about its status is protesting employees on the streets demanding pensions and perks as liabilities continue to surge. Serving people since 1948 and once termed as a “lifeline”, it was on a ventilator for a long time. Its motto of “efficient and economic road transport service” is already dead.
Earlier used as a rehabilitation cell for people close to politics, it eventually emerged as a punishment posting for its top bosses. Nobody gave it a serious thought of revival and respect. Though the fleet added was supposed to help its revival, which was handed over to outsourced crew on a contractual basis. The only innovative initiative of the corporation in the recent past to run five female-specific buses in Srinagar has also gone out of order. As the corporation willingly gave its share to other players, resultantly, the fleet and flow are fractured.
Off late, however, there is a serious effort of regaining the lost prestige. With the induction of a few hundred buses being managed by people hired on contact, the SRTC is right now making the best of the situation. Is it sustainable on a long term basis, remains the moot question, however?
Private transport run by individuals and groups is subject to their own mood and mentality. Monopoly at galore, they operate as if no regulations exist. This all happens in front of the regulator – on the road, in the daylight. As system-driven service is still far from reality in Kashmir, the operators are their own bosses, right from route to the rate. It is their sweet will whether to carry passengers or not and importantly to where. It is their choice to choose. Depending upon the circumstances, the rates and routes are decided. Nobody from the system is concerned enough to check the situation on the ground. The commuters cry hoarse, only to get tired and silenced. If the comparison is a criterion, there is possibly no place outside Jammu and Kashmir where rates, by and large, are not adhered to as rolled out by the government.
Take an example of auto rickshaws. Being an essential part of urban transport, in every Indian city, they charge as per the proper fare and meter system. The basic amount is fixed; the rest depends upon the distance travelled. By this yardstick, everybody pays almost the same fare for equal distance.
But in Kashmir, the meter is no concept. On the contrary, the rates are decided by the choice of the driver and the needs of the commuter. The rates vary as per the situation prevailing. For equal distance, ten different customers pay ten different fares.
Similarly, Sumo’s, now major players on Kashmir roads, have their own system of operation. From the number of passengers to rate and route, they have been given the right to decide. The only intervention seen on the ground would be one among them who controls the flow as per his choice and the amount paid by the particular driver. The systemic intervention is silent.
An essential requirement in the phase of travelling is to know the place to stand and stop. Both, for the driver and the customer. But Kashmir has its own way. Discriminating on almost everything in life, there is no discrimination on this front. Stand where you want to and stop where you ask. Interesting to share would be that nowhere in the world does a passenger have to shout to stop the bus. There are identified stops, where passengers have to wait and the driver to stop mandatorily. Every site on the road is not supposed to be a stop.
In every society time is a commodity. Accordingly, a person decides his day. But as we witness in the valley, it seems the last thing to think about. A passenger is bound to spend an hour or so for a distance of 10 Kms. With multiple stops and desired speed, the journey lasts longer beyond comprehension. If at all, the driver thinks about the accelerator when passengers request it repeatedly. At times, the response is revengeful, “Get down and get auto.” In such a situation, the helpless passengers reconcile to travel for a longer duration. Further, there is no distinction between the driver and the passenger. A uniform would have done that. But this is seen as a stigma to wearing a uniform and the administration is happy as well to waive this condition like all others.
Besides this, on Sundays in summer, there is almost no public transport plying on the roads. When an inquiry is made, the response is surprising. “They have gone for a picnic.” As if it is mandated by law to go for a picnic on Sundays and thus transport is off.
Furthermore, overcrowding is an unending process. Despite promises, nothing has happened on the ground which matches the claims made by the officials. Ask a girl who has to travel in an overcrowded vehicle; there would be no less than a feeling of shame.
The transport system is not a dead dog. It is a nerve centre for any societal setup and requires attention from all the stakeholders, specifically the government. Taking cues from other major cities of India, which have huge populations, there is the requirement to put a proper and sustainable system in place. The convenience of commuters should remain the driving force.
Besides, as mandated by law, the enforcing agencies have a responsibility to ensure the implementation of rules on the streets. Not only the police, but there is also the role of the transport department to keep a check on the situation, and not only to issue licenses and registrations. The drives carried to check violations occasionally or in specific areas need to be sustained. The interior of Srinagar is as important as the uptown lane of the city. The installed traffic lights besides fulfilling the agenda of a smart city should actually be made functional and violators to be booked accordingly.
Further, abiding by the law is not a choice. A responsible citizen is required to follow the norms. A violation on the road could take the matter to the grave. The main responsibility lies on parents who take pride in giving their children costly vehicles, without thinking about the consequences. No manly action is to play with your life. The races and rashness eventually lead to loss of life. Remember, a society that sees a violation as a norm rather than an exception needs serious reflection on its preferences and priorities