Driving in Delhi is a devil's arrangement. You either inch ahead through a jam, with cars from both sides trying to squeeze into your lane. Or you put the pedal to the metal and in an instant hit the next roadblock where every car rushing alongside veers, precariously, trying to be the first in the queue.
And what are these roadblocks? It could be a bursting stream of storm water, a broken down vehicle left unattended for hours, a mound of construction material dumped in the middle of the road, a pothole or a road cave-in, or just some pilgrims having a street party.
Our roads suffer a lot more than what standard roads are supposed to endure. Delhi has the most extensive road network in India--21% of its geographical area is just motorways. The Capital also has the highest vehicular population--8.8 million--in the country. Then there are 200,000 heavy vehicles, mostly overloaded trucks, which pass through the city additionally in the absence of a bypass.
In Delhi, it has never been easy to fix accountability for any civic mess. There are eight agencies which control the capital's road space. They keep busy trading charges over blocked drains, diversion of traffic and maintenance of motorways. Power and water utilities and telephone operators are often blamed for destroying the underground plumbing that makes roads cave-in.
Many busy stretches see construction round-the-year. With so many road agencies, it is impossible to clear up alternative routes for diversions. The traffic police's role is restricted to clearing snarls and collecting fines for violations.
Our public transport management suffers from the same chaos. For years, Delhi's last-mile connectivity problem hasn't been resolved. Delhi Metro is responsible for providing feeder buses that take its users to their final destination. But it has no integration with the city's regular bus service that is run by Delhi Transport Corporation, an autonomous body under the city government.
The transport department performs regulatory functions such as registration of vehicles, issuing driving licences and permits for buses and trucks, fixing fares for autos and taxis. There are different rates to park vehicles in different municipal jurisdictions. Improving signages, removing encroachments, regulating rickshaws and e-rickshaws is the responsibility of multiple agencies. Not surprisingly, hence, it is all a mess.
Even the AAP government's budget proposal to tax diesel vehicles entering Delhi has remained a non-starter because the civic bodies that man road toll-booths have refused to collect the new cess.
To find solutions to Delhi's congestion problems, following the Hindustan Times' six-week long series 'Unclog Delhi' last year, the Union urban development ministry decided to get all the stakeholders together. There were 19 of them on the panel.
To bring some operational integration, the National Transport Policy has suggested setting up of a Unified Transport Authority for Delhi. Sheila Dikshit's cabinet cleared the proposal but it got stuck in administrative tangles. The AAP government also put it on its 70-point agenda. But, the wait continues.
Capital cities such as Paris, London, Madrid and Budapest run efficient unified transport authorities. But in Delhi, statehood is a sticky issue. There may be problems in getting traffic police, DDA, municipal agencies, DMRC and the Delhi government agencies to report to the same boss. A single source funding for these agencies would also be a problem, although the Decongesting Delhi panel estimates a cost of Rs. 80 crore for capacity building with a timeline of two years.
But that shouldn't stop the Centre and the state from agreeing on a working group for coordination among agencies on key mobility issues. Not just civil servants, the group must also have full-time experts on board.
Right now, the government concedes, it doesn't even have the expertise to evaluate the reports and plans prepared by consultants.
Road and transport projects need more than brick and mortar. But the bulk of the planning and work is still done by the government's civil engineers who are not trained to appreciate the challenges of urban mobility.
A city-wide survey to understand Delhi's changing traffic patterns and find effective solutions is long overdue. Who says clogged arteries can't kill a city?
(The writer tweets as @shivaniss62.)