Govt needs to own up to its mistakes

NK Singh

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he swanky bicycle stand, made of eye-catching green and grey plastic, reminds me of the neighbourhood cycle-wallah of our childhood. He would not only repair bicycles but also give it on hire to those who did not possess one. Within no time his fleet expanded from two to 20 and thereafter he opened his own bicycle shop.

The MP government also decided to give bicycles on hire. Last year it spent ₹3 crore of taxpayers’ money on importing 350 state of the art bicycles from Germany and erecting 92 smart docking yards at prominent locations across Bhopal. Besides, it spent a few crores of rupees on laying a brand new track exclusively for bikers. Each smart bicycle cost about ₹70,000 equivalent to one year’s average income of citizens.

The public bike sharing scheme, as the grandiose plan is called in officialese, makes our hearts swell with pride. The expensive bicycles, the attractive docking yards, the alluring red-coloured tracks are head-turners. It provides photo opportunity for visiting dignitaries. Outsiders are impressed and talk about the facility in glowing terms.

However, one year down the line, most of the smart cycles, fitted with global positioning system and anti-theft devices, are gathering dust with few users turning up to hire. Many have been vandalised, their costly head-lamps missing. The exclusive cycle track remains practically deserted even during rush hour. At some places roofs of the swanky docking yards have vanished, exposing the costly machines to elements. In a couple of years, it can be safely predicated, the smart bicycles will turn into scrap.

Why is it that any enterprise that the government touches turn to dust? The objectives behind public bike sharing scheme are laudable promoting green transportation and a healthy lifestyle for citizens. But the planners have failed to grasp the basic fact that bicycles are essentially the poor men’s transportation in this country. For the rich, they are toys. Promoting these expensive and imported bicycles amounts to giving subsidies to the Harley Davidson crowd. It may be a good publicity gimmick among the chattering classes, but it is certainly not going to make cycling a means of mass transportation. If the government really wants to promote cycling on city roads, it may do well to consider radical steps like making bicycles more affordable by abolishing all duties on it.

The government touches gold, and it may turn into dust. An example is eco-friendly, battery operated e-rickshaws that the government tried to introduce as last mile connectivity for the Bus Rapid Transport System in Bhopal. Last heard, more than a 100 brand new vehicles, purchased a couple of years ago, had turned into junk parked in a government facility as the private operator commissioned for the job refused to run it.

But the mandarins are nothing if not thick skinned. Even as the parked e-rickshaws were rusting in yards, they sent a proposal to New Delhi for a ₹150-crore plan to buy electric buses and e-rickshaws. Reason cited: the low floor diesel buses they had purchased earlier were ‘guzzling fuel and spewing pollution’!

The most charitable explanation behind such attitude is that the officials are least bothered about squandering public funds. Take another example from BMC, which does not have enough funds to provide drinking water and clean the city, has installed costly gym equipment in public parks. The move brought it some publicity. Installed under open sky, the equipment is exposed to vagaries of nature, waiting to be sold as scrap soon.

Even when such mistakes become all too glaring, the officials plough on. Take the failed Bus Rapid Transport System in Bhopal that has cost the tax payers an estimated Rs 500 crore till now. Most buses have become junk. Many are gathering rust in a depot due to lack of maintenance. The government has money to buy new buses and construct new bus stops but not for maintaining the existing fleet.

The dedicated BRTS lanes have turned into killer corridors, with rough drivers speeding through it. The corridors are deserted most of the time as the operators have few buses in running condition. Bus drivers vie with mini bus drivers in jumping red lights, making driving a nightmare on city roads. Street vendors have encroached upon almost 30 per cent bus stops.

Running an efficient public transport system is one of the basic responsibilities of the government. But instead of improving traffic, the BRTS has made it more chaotic. All this is obvious to everyone, except people who matter. The government, one presumes, is too proud to own up its mistakes and go for mid course correction.

(The writer is a senior journalist)