First published in the Industrial Economist in Jan 2012
Chennai: 28 December 2011
Dear Chief Minister:
I MUST COMPLIMENT you, albeit belatedly, at your coming to power with a massive mandate. For you, this is both an opportunity and a danger. It’s an opportunity, because you can now do a grounds well of good. It’s a danger, because it can make a government complacent.
In my view there are TWO things that you need to address.
The city’s public transport system is an extra-ordinary mess. You took the second step by hiking bus fares. I am referring to the first step, namely people’s travel experience. Like the pilot, the air-hostesses and the stewards in an airline, the driver and the conductor are the face of a MTC bus. Unfortunately, in Chennai and in Tamil Nadu, these men are a law unto themselves.
They lack manners. You need to step into a bus incognito to know how rude they are. True, they work under stress; but in today’s world who doesn’t? What matches their arrogance inside the bus is the arrogance that the driver displays on the road. He honks noisily at traffic signals; parks intimidatingly close to your vehicle; overtakes on the wrong side; is never known to follow traffic lanes and jumps signals with alacrity. Should he scratch a vehicle when he zigzags, no one can file a case against him.
Of course their language is uncouth. True, I am generalising but rarely have I come across drivers and conductors who are courteous.
If I were you, Madam Chief Minister, I would make it mandatory for every driver and every conductor to go through, once in two years, a one-week finishing school programme where they are taught what courtesy is. Today, a TTE on a train is courteous to the passengers, smiles at them and says a polite thank you after checking the ticket. Why can’t these MTC guys do the same?
Also, have a system of reward and punishment based on public feedback. Challan the drivers if they violate traffic rules; Challan conductors if they are disrespectful to passengers. Three violations; suspend them. Three suspensions in a year; dismiss them. Ensure that bus tickets are through smart cards and that there can be no overloading. The conductor then becomes a guide or host of sorts. Madam, have these done; and you will earn the abiding loyalty of the state.
Next in line are the wonderful auto-rickshaw drivers. Next to the busmen, if there is a breed that is abusive, it is these. Ask anyone who lives in Chennai and they will vouch for it. These drivers never run by the meter; their rates are outlandish; a distance of 4 km at 530 am is priced at-least at Rs 100; no one comes for the short-haul. Equally important, on the road these are killer vehicles. Rash driving, over-speeding, overloading; they violate every rule in the Act. Should there be an accident they get away scot-free. The loud whisper as to why they are treated with kid gloves is that their ownership lies elsewhere.
Madam, provide them with easy access to money. Let there be a sort of co-operative society so that the compulsions of ownership makes the auto drivers better behaved. Ensure that they are well attired, well disciplined and well mannered. Link the eligibility to drive autos to getting a certificate from a government recognized finishing school.
When I went to Singapore a few years ago I was stumped when the taxi-driver, making casual conversation, spoke to me about the history and culture of Singapore.
In cities like Singapore, Dubai, Muscat, etc, following traffic rules is second nature. When the signal turns red, even if there is just one car and it is 2 am, the vehicle, waits and leaves only when the light turns green. Everyone follows lane discipline. There is the fear of law because it is implemented ruthlessly and fearlessly. When an accident takes place nobody bawls; each comes out to check if the other has been injured. There is no reason why it can’t be done here.
Madam Chief Minister, you will earn the unending loyalty of this state if you can bring about reforms in these two areas. You will then end up winning a couple of more terms as well as these are what affect and influence the common man. As the city gets overcrowded this will atleast lead to driving being stress-free.
Very few have the chance, the mandate and stature to bring about change. You have them all; do not let it pass. History remembers people for what they did as also for what they could have done but did not. It would be great to belong to the first.
V Pattabhi Ram