In a famed Sherlock Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, the fictional detective finds a special clue to solve a mystery: the dog that did not bark. When something that should be obvious is missing in a scene, there is something wrong somewhere.
I found the line coming back to me last week, when I thought again about the Blueline buses that are causing havoc in Delhi's public transport system. A Hindustan Times investigation revealed some truths that many already knew—that Blueline buses were owned by operators with friends in high places, had little or no management expertise, and easy money was their main motivation. Not safety, not service.
A look at the Blueline buses on Delhi's roads will give a clue. The buses do not carry advertisements. But look at Delhi's autorickshaws, and you will find them sporting small Internet addresses by way of sponsored mentions. Internet startups have found in these autorickshaws a cost-effective ad medium, and that suits both parties.
Now, the fact that Blueline buses do not carry advertisements is for me like the dog that did not bark.
In this day and age, when everything from postcards to mobile handsets carry brand promotion ads, I find the Bluelines largely devoid of advertisements. I think this is symbolic of how the service is run.
The Blueline had its forerunner in the so called "KM scheme" under which operators were paid money according to the number of kilometres for which their buses ferried passengers.
Bluelines have their roots in the bureaucratised, administration-based contract system founded as an answer to a severe shortage of buses that Delhi Transport Corporation faced as the national capital grew in size and population, while DTC itself sank in corruption and inefficiency.
Now, Blueline buses would be a lot different, if they were run by real corporate managers. Even Bollywood films now carry advertisements as "in-film promos" and sell music rights, television rights, distribution rights and satellite rights separately to make money.
If Blueline buses were to be as smart, they would be making money from selling advertisement space, charging peak-hour premiums, running airconditoned buses as a value-added service, building a brand around punctuality, and courting a public image for its safety.
Why is that not happening? The answer is simple: contractors are not corporates.
In a progressive, competitive corporate, we would find top brass who support innovation, managers who are accountable, sales people who focus on revenues, operations people who focus on service quality and owners who look at returns with a long-term perspective.
A bureaucratised public transport bus system has not changed in Delhi—even as it prepares to host the Commonwealth Games and dreams of hosting the Olympics next decade.
What the Delhi government can do is to empower the State Transport Authority to regulate the quality of bus service, create competition between rival brands by auctioning licences to corporate bus service operators, offer depots to these operators at concessional rents and move the Finance Ministry to seek infrastructure status and tax concessions for these players. Delhi's citizens should be able to happily buy shares in these companies.
If Delhi's citizens do not tell each other about ideas and move the government, they have only themselves to blame.
What do you think?