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We need branded city bus services

While we may criticise FMCG companies for charging a high price for simple things, we also need to salute them for bringing variety to simple products, writes Narayanan Madhavan.

india Updated: May 20, 2007 19:07 IST
Narayanan Madhavan

Milk, once a scarce commodity in the country, can now be had in full-cream versions for those who still swear by fat, while the toned and the double-toned versions are available for those differently inclined. Amul and Mother Dairy now sell cheese, ice cream and milk sweets. Variety, packaging and competition make for good business.

I do not even have to tell you about detergents, soaps and toothpastes that lead this revolution. While we may criticise fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies for charging a high price for simple things, and packaging and promoting things ad-nauseum, or of polluting the environment with plastic wrappers, we also need to salute them for bringing variety to simple products, packing them in convenience formats (like sachets for shampoos) and finding new ways to reach across to rural customers.

I think of late that transport companies and regulators need to learn from such savvy private players. Some of them are already doing so. The emergence of newfangled national highways and spacious Volvo buses have given rise to a new culture of inter-city transport across the country.

Raj National Express allows online booking, while many smaller players, taking a leaf out of the airline industry, offer hand towels and mineral water bottles to please travellers. A pioneering Tamil Nadu-based company called KPN Travels has its own spacious bus stands and a boarding card system.

Many such companies have sprung up in India, particularly in the south and west. Even state-owned companies in the south have fancy buses with brands like Airavat and Mayura.

Now, when I turn my attention to intra-city transport, I find a contrasting mess. Chennai and Mumbai have reasonably respectable state-run bus services, but Hyderabad, Bangalore and Delhi are far behind. Delhi’s state-owned Delhi Transport Corp (DTC) is neither getting privatised, nor is it doing much to help the public.

An ill-conceived private contract system introduced to make up for a paucity of buses resulted in the Blueline and Redline buses more notorious for rash driving than being known for timely or efficient transport. Local truckers and dairy owners jumped on to that bandwagon, and service was a casualty.

Delhi, of course, now has a fine metro railway, but its linkage with buses is by and large an idea and little else. Chances are very high that the state government will wake up and spend a lot of money to import luxury buses for the Commonwealth Games, while still ignoring the day to day needs of its one-crore plus citizens.

Meanwhile, traffic chaos grows, cars choke the roads, and the affluent prefer to buy cars that jam parking spaces. Chartered buses fill a void, but, like the infamous Bluelines, they are run by contractors with no corporate knowledge. Surely, governments and transport regulators could do something about this.

One irony that strikes me is that a lot else is getting cool and convenient in this country. Airlines, inter-city bus operators, movie multiplexes, holiday resorts and fast food takeaways are getting smarter by the day wooing customers with higher quality at cheaper rates.

My guess is that business culture has improved in the service industry, but city transport is still an orphaned baby. Local governments in places like Delhi, Bangalore and Hyderabad, not to speak of growing satellite towns like Noida and Gurgaon, can float tenders linked to regulatory requirements to create bus services that compete with each other.

The government and regulators can provide logistical support in the form of depots, monitor tariffs and lay down route and service standards. The Centre can chip in with tax breaks.

Branded corporate entities with franchise models or captive fleets could be held accountable – the way Hutch, Airtel and Reliance are in the case of mobile phone networks.

If the government knows how to play this game, it can even get revenue for itself while cutting traffic chaos down improving city bus services dramatically.