The Union Budget presented on February 1 focused on capital expenditure for infrastructure development that mainly includes the railways, highways, and roads.
The Union Budget presented on February 1 focused on capital expenditure for infrastructure development that mainly includes the railways, highways, and roads. The Centre has prioritised infrastructure development as a critical governance delivery model in the last few years. So, the budget announcements were on the expected lines.
At the same time, the expectation for a multiplier impact on the economy, generating jobs, improving productivity, more investments, etc, needs to be examined in the context of sustainability and inclusivity.
As Kerala expects the state budget announcements on February 3, it is imperative to understand the implications and impacts of ‘software without soft power’ announcements. In the last few budgets, the state government has announced hundreds of road widening or expansion projects.
Thousands of crores were set aside for land acquisitions and relaying the surface of the existing road networks. In the last decade, the road infrastructure has improved significantly, and the pressure from middle-class voters has worked in this case. These could be considered hardware improvements. But the issue with the hardware improvements is whether you have upgraded software matching the performance of the hardware configuration?
With the support of the Centre, more than 900km of national highways are getting upgraded in the coming years. The work is progressing and a huge sum of money is dispersed to landowners against the acquisition of their property.
In a recent RTI response, the road transport department shared the data that North Paravoor sub-RTO has the highest registration of new vehicles in the last year after Ernakulam. This is an early warning signal to those who stand for sustainability and inclusiveness.
One of the reasons cited for the growth in vehicle registration in North Paravoor is the money the landowners received following the acquisition of land for the Edappally–Paravoor stretch of NH-66 widening that started last year. Another reason is the lack of public transport facilities in the Goshree Islands neighbourhood that come under the North Paravoor sub-RTO.
One can’t ban or stop a citizen from buying a private car or two-wheeler but there could be a lot of intervention to offer better quality public transport to commuters so that they would prefer them over burning their pockets for daily commute. With the increase in purchasing power that would come along with the distribution of thousands of crores towards land acquisition for the national highways in Kerala, the ownership of private vehicles is set to increase in the coming years.
Kerala’s private vehicle ownership is more than that of China and could be compared to developed countries. Key to development is not the number of private vehicles on the streets but how many public transport avenues and their availability and accessibility are for the public.
In the last budget, the finance minister had announced a package of Rs 1,800 crore for the revival of KSRTC and Rs 1,000 crore from KIIFB to buy e-buses.
In the 2000s, Kerala’s 82% of public transport was served by private buses and the rest by KSRTC. Today, more than 20,000 private buses disappeared from Kerala roads resulting in more than a crore of passenger trips daily. It does not mean that Malayalis are sitting at home due to a lack of adequate bus services. With the improvement of road infrastructure and easy access to loans, the roads are congested by private vehicles.
The budgets these days try to woo the middle class. The middle class is excited to see more flyovers, express highways, eight-lane roads etc., but they don’t realise that each of these developments acts as an incentive to realise their dreams to drive their personal vehicles on these roads.
The issues of congestion and pollution get multiplied as self-interests prevail over respect for the communities they belong to. Kerala has the highest road density per population in the country. But the majority of these roads are not served by public transport.
The lack of an available fleet cannot be an excuse for the lack of public transport. The government should announce policies and budgets to help private operators in the bus and feeder services to own and operate in a regulated system. Even the budget allocation for electric vehicles shall focus on electric buses and not private vehicles.
Ensuring public transport and feeder services in all these road development schemes is the upgrading of the software. As the Competition Commission of India ruled in a tech case recently, let it be an open competition of the services and not a monopoly of a single entity called KSRTC.
Unless the change is ensured, the National Green Tribunal will have more tasks cut out for them in Kerala. Today’s pollution in Ernakulam could be spread across the state owing to private vehicle congestion on these big budgeted roads.
The author is chairman of the Centre for Public Policy Research
This was first published on Wednesday, Feb 3, 2023, in ‘www.newindianexpress.com’ Read it here…
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.