In reopening public transport, ensure that services are made accessible to those who need them most.
In his address to the nation on Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi indicated that Lockdown 4 will be very different from the previous versions. A day earlier, during his video conference with chief ministers, PM Modi had asked states for suggestions on the economic activities that should be allowed after May 17. In response, the Delhi government has proposed a slew of bold measures, including re-opening markets and shopping complexes with outlets selling non-essential items functioning on an odd-even basis. A significant section of Delhi’s proposals pertains to public transport. These include a “limited” resumption of metro and bus services. Meanwhile, the Centre is also reportedly framing social distancing guidelines with a view to resuming public transport. These are steps in the right direction. The rules and guidelines for Lockdown 4 must focus on the safe mobility of people who do not own personal vehicles.
Amongst the nations that have opened up after asking people to stay at home for several weeks, China’s example could be pertinent for India because of comparable demographics. Wuhan, once the epicentre of the pandemic, for instance, resumed bus services in a calibrated manner — to begin with, 30 per cent of the city’s fleet was deployed and supervisors ensured that commuters followed safety protocols. The Delhi government, too, plans to operate buses with 20-25 commuters (passenger). However, India’s traditional deficiencies in public transport could compound the challenges of operating buses and metros at less than optimum capacity. Even in normal times, Delhi’s bus fleet — about a fourth of that of Beijing — is short by 5,000 buses. In such a situation, transport authorities will have to find ways to make optimum use of scarce resources. In Delhi, the DTC must coordinate with the metro to plan routes — the two transit systems must complement each other.
Delhi’s pitch for the resumption of public transport, reportedly, rests on a range of safety measures. Passengers will be requested by marshals (assemble) and conductors to not board buses carrying over 25 people. This approach is reasonable, to begin with — the dangers of overcrowding cannot be overstated during the pandemic. However, given the overwhelming dependence of the working class on public transit systems, authorities will have to be creative with the protocols. Buses in the Chinese city have earmarked places where passengers can stand. During the pandemic, Indian cities, too, will have to find ways to ensure the availability of public transport for people who use it the most, without compromising on safety.