Finding solutions to India's transportation challenges

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A foundational issue in the political economy is what is the role of the state? While protection and safety against aggression, both from external and internal, seem to be the legitimate and core principles behind the formation of states, public services like education and healthcare are often now conceived as being the responsibility of the state. But, what about transportation/ mobility?, is it the responsibility of the state or is it best left to private providers. This is a question that societies have been grappling with for quite sometime now.

In India, the transportation model is mixed and (some would say mixed up) with the state ensuring the basic infrastructure like roads and railway tracks and even airports and ports in most cases. Services over these are provided by both government and the private sector. Two recent debates over transportation have made headlines but have rarely been understood from a holistic viewpoint.

The first of these was the odd-even rule in the capital, brought to reduce the negative externality of air pollution. Many people have been very skeptical about how the plan is to get implemented.

Also, the lack of end-to-end connectivity, women safety, and enforceability are cited as major challenges to the rule. Experts contend that the record of these types of rules has not been very positive in other countries that have had similar rules. In addition, several people opine that before making these rules, it is a must to improve the existing transportation infrastructure within the city and to have cheap and convenient public transport. Also, alternative solutions like increasing ethanol content can be effective at the same time causing lesser inconvenience to common people.

Another problem is with respect to India's lack of solution-oriented approach to mobility options within a city. This is where the need is to look at integrated urban mobility solutions for people residing in cities. Often the initial part or the ending part becomes exorbitantly expensive for people who live away from public transport systems. This is where there is a need for improvement both in terms of cost and convenience.

The second major thing which hit the headlines in the recent times was the metro rail project that is an inter-city project between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. A lot of debate has taken place regarding the cost dynamics of the proposed project that is estimated to cost close to Rs 70000 crore. If escalations are added, the project is expected to cost close to Rs 98000 crore. Out of these, Rs 70000 crore a bulk of the costs, i.e., Rs 50000 crore is expected to be civil costs that will go to Indian companies.

The project is at an advanced stage with Japan agreeing to provide India with more than three-fourth of the loan at a concessional rate of 0.1 percent and moratorium period of 15 years and a payback period of 50 years. It is one of the best deals India has had regarding cost and time, even from Japan, which reflects the depth of the Indo-Japanese relationship. The train technology is second to none with respect to safety. It has not had a single causality in 50 years of operation.

The crucial question to ask, therefore, is not if a high-speed technology is good or not but can India's existing rail infrastructure be upgraded to improve travel times? And if so, at what cost? Travel time improvement requires not just track up-gradation but also an improvement in capacity utilization. With already overburdened capacity on the rail network, is it possible to improve speed is a crucial question to ask and answer by rail authorities. And if it is not is it not wise to upgrade to better technology with proposed high-speed tracks?

Over the next few decades, India must find solutions that are visionary but also pragmatic as more people live in urban and semi-urban areas. The travel times can drastically improve with newer technologies in rails and even in automobiles. But as a nation, we must look to find solutions that solve the pressing problems of our times like vehicular pollution, availability of public transport with public consultation and seeing if better alternative solutions exist. But once a decision is made Indians must all support it to take India ahead.

(The article is co-authored with Sankalp Sharma, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Competitiveness, India. Amit Kapoor is Chair, Institute for Competitiveness & Editor of Thinkers. The views expressed are personal. Amit can be reached at and tweets @kautiliya)

(Image: Indiatimes)

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