Bhopal looks somewhat like New Delhi these days with roads dug up and wet earth lying along their sides. The main arteries are being worked on their flanks for widening them, in the process, denuding the roadsides of their green canopy. Thousands of trees have been sacrificed for the purpose – which, perhaps, many do not know – of facilitating introduction of the multi-crore Bus Rapid Transit System, BRTS for short. General public was, maybe still is, as ignorant about it as their representatives in the Municipal Corporation and the State Legislative Assembly. This came out recently at a meeting hosted by a prominent newspaper house of the city that was arranged to discuss this very project with selected invitees.
The transport sector being a substantial contributor of greenhouse gases that are believed to have been the cause of global warming and the changing climate the Government of India adopted BRTS as a kind of a spearhead in its mission to renew urban India that is being increasingly cluttered and clogged up by millions of private two and four wheelers. The scheme essentially hopes to push people from using personal transport to public transport. The objective seemingly is to provide under the scheme unhindered passage to the buses of decent quality in dedicated bus lanes taking commuters to their destinations with relative ease and rapidity. In the process, hopefully, the commuters will save time and energy by commuting in modern, comfortable high-end buses. Not only the roads will be decongested, it will help in stabilising the country’s progressively increasing emissions and enlarging carbon footprint.
A system first conceived and tried in the Bogota, capital of Columbia, the country of Shakira, BRTS has been replicated elsewhere in the world as also in Delhi, Jaipur, Pune etc. A scheme that proved successful in the countries of the West, that have had from the inception of their cities broad roads to accommodate dedicated lanes for big, commodious buses, may not prove to be so in every expanding city, particularly, those which are of medieval vintage in South Asia. The lay of the land in every city is different. A system that proved successful in the West can be transplanted lock stock and barrel in our parts only with, inter alia, clear thinking and planning, coordinated approach, educated and aware users, effective governance – the factors that are generally absent in our system.
As became evident at this meeting, the bus corridor has been planned right through the middle of the town yet it is not quite clear until now how many of the numerous problems confronting the project are going to be overcome. For instance, how the corridor is going to negotiate the core of the old city with its narrow, encroached-upon roads with several priceless heritage structures. None really knows whether the corridor would bulldoze its way through or take the aerial route of flyovers. Then, there are rotaries – big and small – on dozens of junctions which had been enlarged and spruced up at considerable expense a couple of years back and then reduced in size again, spending more money, only recently. What is going to be the fate of statues erected in their middle, holy cows for many, is yet to be decided. Likewise, the Link Road No. 1, supposedly the pride of Bhopal, beautified at great cost only last year with green sides with fancy bus stops and central verge would need to be uprooted. Besides, there does not seem to be any clarity about the bus stops that are planned at the middle of the corridor which, apparently, will necessitate foot over-bridges at every stop. Power situation being what it is and unlikely to improve, escalators, if provided, are likely to get jammed because of disuse. Climbing up and climbing down the foot over-bridges is likely to discourage many from using the System. Then, since the System is going to run right through the middle of the town it is going to have numerous stoppages that will slow down the progress of the buses, virtually killing its “Rapid” attribute. And, one is not sure whether enough planning has gone into feeding the System from various far-flung areas by introduction of linkages with feeder services.
JNNURM was announced in 2005. All these years there seems to have been no planning and coordination in regard to implementation of the BRTS project. Public money was wasted on those very roads for their beautification and sprucing up several rotaries on them which would later make way for the BRTS. The Link Road No.1 alone saw an amount Rs. 7 crore needlessly spent on it. Or was it the case of the left hand not knowing what the right one was up to? It seems, the BRTS project was kept a well guarded secret and none knew about it. Strangely, for such a massive project affecting lakhs of citizens and at the cost of several crores of rupees the people were never consulted.
What is more, the city and its people have not been prepared for taking to buses in a big way for their commutes. Honestly speaking, the city has had no culture of public transport; there has been no effort to encourage it. The backbone of the city’s public transport – the ramshackle mini buses – that one sees on the roads is a phenomenon of not more than a couple of decades old. The way these are maintained and operated deters the middle classes – supposedly the ultimate users of the BRTS – from using them. In fact, the middle classes shun them. These despicable rattling moving metal boxes are largely responsible for driving people to acquire their own vehicles – new or used two or four wheelers.
A beginning was made by the city administration to introduce better buses taking a cue from Indore. Good looking, Tata Star buses were introduced a few years back under the aegis of Bhopal City Link Limited on several routes. As the buses started cutting into the incomes of the minibuses, soon the Service was reduced to a farce with many of the buses rendered out of commission by the goons of the vested interests. As the management threw up its arms, today the Service is not even a pale shadow of what it was with its buses in as bad a condition as the minibuses. Their services are infrequent, unpunctual and irregular. The management that operates the service has neither the capability nor the wherewithal to maintain and run the service. The local administration has stood by helplessly watching its decline. At Indore, however, the Service is not only running but is reported to be flourishing.
Given the city’s administrative culture one wonders whether the sacrifice of thousands of mature trees, expenditure of thousands of crores for the bus-corridor and the soon-to-be-procured high-end low-floor buses with dozens of foot over-bridges, perhaps, with escalators will eventually be worthwhile. Planning and coordination-wise, administratively and organisationally the city is so weak that its administration hardly ever inspires confidence. The BRTS is being managed by the Bhopal Municipal Corporation. None has ever asked whether it has the human resources with technical acumen to implement the project in a manner that in a couple of years’ time the roads are de-clogged and the BRTS takes commuters by hordes to their destinations freeing the rest of the roads from traffic snarls. From all evidences, it does not have any of that. It will be awfully sad if after commissioning of the corridor buses on it run virtually empty and the jams that one sees now continue – and progressively become worse.
I, for one, am very apprehensive. Crores have already been poured into the project with only destruction and denudation to show for them. An enormous mound of details is yet to be sorted out. People of Bhopal are going to have a long, hard time during which their patience is going to be tested by the torturously slow progress of the work. I think, for the citizens of Bhopal the moment of truth is here and now. They have to decide either to put pressure on the administration to speed up the work or just ask it to lay off. Or else there is going to be hell to pay in the shape of … well, somewhat like what Delhi-ites are suffering now. With the Games, for the Delhi-ites there is light at the end of the tunnel; for us in Bhopal it is likely to be a long dark claustrophobic tunnel.