The debate on the utility and feasibility of K-Rail continues in Kerala. The arguments range from the environmental to the geographical divide for those who do not favour the proposed project, whereas the supporters of the project pitch for the speed and economic growth. Some have taken the position that speed is important while they are concerned about the debt that Kerala might get trapped into. In this context, what are the possible alternatives?

Kerala was known for its efficient bus transportation system in the early 21st century. Both private and public operators were catering to the demands of the public. In 2,000, there were more than 32,000 buses on the roads of Kerala. 85% of them were accounted for by the private operators and the rest by the state-owned Kerala State Road Transportation Corporation (KSRTC). The socio-economic development of Kerala society is very much influenced by the enhanced mobility and connectivity provided by these services from the 1990s onwards. Many had moved into the bus operations as an investment and business opportunity. The government regulated the sector, and it was not entirely a laissez faire economy. In the last ten years, the approach of the government to save KSRTC at any cost has worsened the public transport sector in Kerala. It was aggravated by the slowness to understand the changing mobility features of Kerala society. The importance of improved transport architecture in the changing times especially in the context of climate change and their unwillingness to come out of the conventional fare revision exercises, also added woes to the already dilapidated public transport architecture.

The number of buses operating in Kerala has reduced to 12,000 in this period. Though KSRTC introduced low floor and AC buses under JNNURM (Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission) during this period, poor understanding of making of the buses and lack of efficient operating systems didn’t yield the desired results. In addition, many of the bus routes in Kerala were nationalised, forcing the private operators out of business. KSRTC is a huge loss-making entity and has not been able to add more fleet or services thus depriving the commuters of the rights, options and choices to access public transport. The routes are not revised and reviewed for many years in Kerala; hence, the existing route permits are scrapped, and the new licences are not issued.

In summary, more than 1 crore trips are moved into private vehicles daily (average 500 commuters in a bus daily; reduced numbers of buses 20,000). The majority of these trips are short in nature and this could be taken care of by enhanced services by the buses and not by K-Rail.

Kerala has a dense population and the society’s mobility features are short distances as the majority of the villages and towns are presented with improved access to the markets, education institutions and the service sector economies. With the improvement in the per capita income and the economy, owning a private vehicle became a status symbol and also represented the arrival of the middle-class community. The movement of these vehicles on the roads was accentuated by the poor-quality services of the buses or their lack on the roads.

For a long time, the public transport system in the state lacked revision and restructuring of the bus routes and permits. This has put emerging activity zones and popular commercial places outside the range of the Public Transport (PT) network. Even while urbanisation is the mainstay of Kerala’s development, enhancing the mobility network using PT has not been a mandatory step in the urban planning and zone development plans.

Since KSRTC has been pushed to the forefront at the expense of the willing operators, it resulted in insufficient services characterised by delay in adopting technologies and lack of modernisation of the bus fleet amongst other issues. Kerala has a high road density. There is a scope to improve public transport with the existing road networks. While the road networks have significantly improved, the roads in the state are narrow. Given this, a desirable approach for the government to undertake is to issue permits for share-autos and smaller vehicles to operate on these roads.

Chartered bus services and long-distance bus permits were not issued to the willing operators to cater to the demands. What is required for a state like Kerala is to get back to 40,000 buses immediately. The standard is 400 – 600 buses per million population in cities as per the National Service Level Benchmark. With the urban continuum and a population of 36 million, there is an imminent need for public transport buses.  Additionally, dedicated bus corridors could be planned in the city limits and connect neighbouring towns.

The government should push for the speedy completion of doubling the existing railway line work along the routes to Trivandrum via Kottayam and Alleppy. This would provide four lanes from central Kerala to Southern Kerala. This would eliminate the time taken for halts and crossings. Additional lines in the Malabar region should be explored. The government should push for the Sabari Railway connecting the eastern part of Kerala, and studies should be conducted to link it to neighbouring junction stations.

Kerala presents a mixed growth pattern and a continuum of the urban metropolis. The attempt to reduce the private vehicles from the roads is a welcome step. The travel pattern and trip lengths do not support the K-Rail proposal. The feature of Kerala society is the daily neighbourhood travel. Since the state does not have highly concentrated habitations followed by vacant lands, mobility facilities need to be provided to every region and neighbourhood. De-nationalisation of bus routes, revising the private sector participation in the public transport sector, permits for share autos and small vehicles to operate as feeders in the neighbourhoods and augmentation of the railway networks are to be prioritised, instead of a whopping K-Rail project which doesn’t guarantee the commuters. Every town and village needs to be a part of a more extensive mobility plan network, supported by data and evidence. Kerala presents a unique opportunity for urban and transport planners to develop a cost-effective and sustainable transport network at this point.

Dr D Dhanuraj is Chairman and Nissy Solomon Hon. Trustee (Research and Programs) at Centre for Public Policy Research. Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.

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Dr D Dhanuraj is the Chairman and Managing Trustee of CPPR. He holds a PhD in Science & Humanities (Anna University), MSc Physics (Mahatma Gandhi University) and MA Political Science (Madras Christian College). He also holds a Post Graduate Executive Diploma in International Business from Loyola Institute of Business Administration, Chennai, and has undergone training by TTMBA of Atlas USA, IAF Germany, FEE USA, etc. His core areas of expertise are in urbanisation, urban transport & infrastructure, education, health, livelihood, law, and election analysis. He can be contacted by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @dhanuraj

D. Dhanuraj
D. Dhanuraj
Dr D Dhanuraj is the Chairman and Managing Trustee of CPPR. He holds a PhD in Science & Humanities (Anna University), MSc Physics (Mahatma Gandhi University) and MA Political Science (Madras Christian College). He also holds a Post Graduate Executive Diploma in International Business from Loyola Institute of Business Administration, Chennai, and has undergone training by TTMBA of Atlas USA, IAF Germany, FEE USA, etc. His core areas of expertise are in urbanisation, urban transport & infrastructure, education, health, livelihood, law, and election analysis. He can be contacted by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @dhanuraj
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