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How to corporatise Blueline buses

There seems to be no political will to take Delhi’s public transport service to the next level, despite a shining example in the Delhi Metro, writes Narayanan Madhavan.
Hindustan Times | By Narayanan Madhavan
UPDATED ON JUL 19, 2007 09:02 PM IST

I don’t usually like coming back to a topic only a few weeks after I have touched upon it. But I think Delhi’s bus service deserves extra attention. The past few days have seen a near-farcical debate on how to deal with Blueline buses, but there is more tragedy here than farce, because the debate was triggered by road deaths caused by rash driving.

While everybody is concerned about road safety, and Delhi’s Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit has certainly shown genuine concern, there seems to be no political will to take Delhi’s public transport service to the next level, despite a shining example in the Delhi Metro existing close by.

The Punjab, Delhi and Haryana Chamber of Commerce has suggested that 4,000 Blueline and 3,000 Delhi Transport Corp buses plying on Delhi roads need a GPRS (general packet radio service) network that can track buses on the roads through a common geographical-tracking based information technology to monitor traffic violations and punish the guilty. This would be at a budget of Rs 150 crore—every year—funded by advertisements.

Now, that sounds cool but I am not sure. Rs 150 crore a year can easily add 1,500 buses on the roads. Why should so much be spent on technology when you can expand the fleet with that kind of money?

To recap, Blueline buses came on to the roads about two decades ago because state-owned DTC was making losses while demand for public transport was growing. Blueline is a loose brand for a service that no-one really owns! Bluelines were introduced under a contract system that involved no service guarantees for commuters. It has only come to mean lack of safety on Delhi roads.

Public transport is actually a service industry and a bus service must have a brand built around guarantees on the routes buses ply on, timings, punctuality, service quality, comfort levels, customer service and economic value. Passengers must have an assurance on the level of service and quality built around the brand.

That is not happening. This is because a contract system is not the same thing as corporatisation or privatisation. Buses in a public transport network need an intelligent managerial organisation that runs the show on a daily basis, with an accountability built around the brand.

I have argued that Delhi’s bus services must compete like Airtel, Hutch and Reliance Communications do in the telecommunications space, monitored by a regulator (like the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) who will define service standards and prices and monitor the work of competing networks.

It is clear now that the Delhi government is reluctant to go this way, and is under pressure from a contractor lobby that has made a lot of money, built quite a bit of clout, but knows next to nothing about modern management methods or customer service.

How does one get over this lobby? I think the best way is for citizens to approach the Supreme Court in the cause of public safety, point to Delhi Metro’s success and plead in a public interest litigation (PIL) that the government must enforce regulation-based competition in public transport buses.

Remember how CNG buses came on to Delhi roads after the Supreme Court intervened? Anyone who has breathed Delhi’s air after that should smell some success here. Citizen groups must join lawyers now to push the government into doing what it should.

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