What can Delhi's public transport goods achieve for the poor?
Priyanka Jain, Delhi Community Manager
Delhi, 7 October 2014
The rapidly rising population and the concomitant growing demand for transport have left millions of people in Delhi Region with poor access to basic social and economic services. A large number of people across the city exist in misery, depending upon informal or non-motorized modes of transport to get to work that are inefficient, overcrowded, unsafe, and often considered to be symbols of poverty. Delhi has undergone much change over the last few years, and more changes are in the course of being implemented. Broader investigations are needed right now and they can inter alia alter even the way more traditional queries, around mobility and access, are answered. There are two elementary points of departure.
First, there must be an attempt to link the public transport goods to something more fundamental. We need to understand the reason to seek accessibility. The primary question: What can it achieve for the poor? And how can the success and failure of the instruments adopted for public transport and infrastructure development be judged? This question is best answered by examining the case study of E-Rickshaw.
Hundred of thousands of electric three-wheelers — popularly called E-Rickshaws — offer tailor-made services in response to growing transit needs and urban changes, hence providing inherent flexibility to changing markets in sharp contrast to the rigidities of protected monopolies. They provide an affordable option to the poor whose livelihood depends upon reaching desired destinations early to procure jobs, markets, or customers. They compliment metro and bus systems as feeder services by enabling riders to reach crowded inner-city areas where formal motorized transport does not or cannot reach. They are non-polluting and are designed to travel at a safe speed.
Yet the future of E-Rickshaws remains uncertain with the recent ban on their operation. The reason is their classification as "motorized vehicles" instead of non-motorized — a classification that subjected them to the motor vehicles department's existing requirements. Although the ministry for road transport have publicly reversed the decision in June and reworked the relevant provisions related to engine power so that the E-Rickshaws can be treated as non-motorized, the ban is yet to be lifted. This extremely slow process shows a lack of explicit recognition of the basic end — social transformation and poverty alleviation — that the informal modes of transport offer.
The second point of departure takes us to the investigation of the means through which the above-stated ends can be achieved. While the debate on the current public transport strategies, investments, and instruments concentrates on motorized transport and infrastructure development, there are many other means, especially dealing with the 'social' side of accessibility, such as non-motorized transport and head-loading, that typically tend not to figure in these debates. One particular departure is the case study of Rickshaw Bank. An initiative of Centre for Rural Development, the Rickshaw Bank provides a newly designed rickshaw, with insurance and license at an affordable cost, facilitating rickshaw pullers' solidarity for rights and livelihoods. Since their launch in 2004, there has been a significant change in the earning of the Rickshaw Bank members in comparison to that of their previous occupation. The enhanced earning has increased their family budget in different areas like food, clothing etc.
Based on the above two points of departure, reasoning can be developed to consolidate and reinforce the diverse government actions that are required for crucial transport development. Given the extremely heterogeneous character of Delhi's public transport modes, the success and failure of transport strategies cannot be understood in composite terms, and it is essential to examine the experiences in various modes. It calls emphatically for an active public transport policy that takes into account the totality of practices of economic development.