Thursday, July 25, 2013

Take the Slow Lane

In the last one decade Gurgaon has been transformed from a suburb into a city. The population has grown exponentially, traffic has multiplied, and the number of corporates have grown manifold - but one thing that has refused to change is the bureaucratic system and a mindset that is painfully slow and inadequate to meet the growing challenges of a Millennium City in the making. Considering the dysfunctional way in which this City's Municipality operates, the residents would not be shocked to know that the authorities do not record and register the thousands of cycle-rickshaws that are operating in the City. Anyone, whether he is a criminal or a migrant from another country, can buy or rent a rickshaw, and start operating as a rickshaw puller, with the authorities not even batting an eyelid. It is not as if the MCG does not have a licensing procedure for cycle rickshaws, but it went out of vogue a decade ago; and since then the system has been lying defunct with no one knowing the reason why this happened. The situation in Gurgaon is the opposite of the over- regulated scenario in neighbouring Delhi, where NGOs like Manushi had to approach the Supreme Court to get justice for rickshaw owners and pullers from the draconian controls imposed by MCD.

Gurgaon today has almost 20,000 cycle rickshaws, which are being pulled by migrants from Bihar and UP - especially from the districts of Darbhanga, Pilibhit and Shahjahanpur. With each rickshaw at an average making 10 trips in a day, experts point out that almost 400,000 people use this mode of transport in the City, making it a crucial cog in the transport system – though it remains unacknowledged. Experts opine that if due importance is given to this non-motorized mode of transportation, then it could help resolve the problem of 'last mile' connectivity, which is acute in this City dominated by cars. Amit Bhatt, an expert on Traffic Management, says that the time has come for the City managers to realize the importance of cycles and cycle rickshaws, to ensure easier movement of people. "What is surprising is that 70 per cent of the population in the City is dependent on public transport like shared autos, rickshaws and now buses, but the emphasis still remains on cars. There has to be a balanced sharing of space, and respect must be given to cycles and rickshaws on the roads," says Bhatt. The members of the Non-Motorized Transport (NMT) Group, comprising City-based activists, have also approached the government as well as policy makers for making the City safer for pedestrians, and giving dedicated road space to cyclists and rickshaws.
In fact the Group recently invited Navdeep Asija of Fazilka Eco-cabs, to ask him to consider launching a pilot project in the City, as he has done successfully in Fazilka, and recently in Chandigarh. Asija told Friday Gurgaon that if the cycle rickshaw transport is combined with an innovative use of technology, then it could resolve the commuting problems of Gurgaon - particularly the movement inside large colonies, as well moving to and fro from Metro stations. "In Chandigarh we have used the power of crowd-sourcing and smart phones to connect the users and rickshaw pullers through a mobile-based interface. Almost 150 rickshaw pullers have been brought into the Eco-cab network in this way, and the Project is likely to be very successful," says Asija. The maximum benefit of the Eco Cab project is being derived by senior citizens and ladies in the family, who need to go to markets and schools, and travel for other chores. What the Eco-Cab project has ensured is that a cycle-rickshaw is available very close to the residence of a person who needs to take a ride, says Asija. The support of the citizens and civil society is very much needed to make the Project successful. They need to click the photo of a rickshaw puller, take his name and mobile number and upload it on the Eco Cab website, and share the information and link with the people who have the Eco-cab application on their phones. The issue with an unorganised rickshaw network is that these are not accessible near residential areas, tariffs are unregulated, maintenance is poor, pullers do not maintain proper hygiene and many use intoxicants.
Replicating the Chandigarh model in Gurgaon would be easy, because a large number of people in the City are connected through smartphones, and use Internet with ease. "To start, we can get in touch with a few colonies and ask them to provide some parking space for rickshaw pullers in front of their gate. The mobile numbers of the rickshaw pullers can be uploaded on a site so that people can easily call them. We also fix the fares, so there is no need for haggling," he says. Fazilka Eco-cabs would soon be launching a project in Delhi's Greater Kailash, with the Millennium City to follow.
While organising the rickshaws is one end of the spectrum, a strong need is also felt for creating an enabling infrastructure such as a dedicated lane for Non-Motorized Transport, foot paths for pedestrians, and cross-sections where people on foot and cycle can easily traverse. It has to be kept in mind that only 25 per cent of Gurgaon roads have footpaths, and these too are poorly maintained, and/or encroached upon by vendors. There is no space for cycles. The casual attitude of the authorities also makes matters more difficult as a senior official revealed that the 'Street Vendor' policy devised by the MCG is languishing in Chandigarh – as is much else. Deputy Mayor Yashpal Batra, when asked about the policy of registration and licensing of rickshaws, says in a condescending tone: "What do you want? You want that there should be a monitoring and registration process? We have taken up the matter and if you want it we will make it functional soon." In the absence of proper government regulation, the rickshaw pullers operate in a vacuum that is ultimately dominated by cartels. Another important function is highlighted by Prabhat Agarwal of Aravalli Scholars. His contention is that rickshaws play an important role in carrying small loads, particularly in large colonies as well as in the lanes and by-lanes of Sadar Bazar. "We need to encourage the rickshaw pullers, give them space and support. This will make the City less dependent on motor cars and bikes", says Agarwal. He also says that rickshaws could easily use the internal roads in the City, to ensure easier and faster travel for people. "The DLF Phase 1 residents find it difficult to reach Sikanderpur Metro Station, and have to use their cars. An internal road can be made accessible to the rickshaws. Many such short distance trips would not require the use of cars," he asserts. He also emphasizes the role played by street vendors, operating hand-driven carts, in making roads more secure and safe. 
The eco-friendly nature of rickshaws can be realized from the fact that one rickshaw helps save 3 litres of fuel daily. If Gurgaon has 20,000 rickshaws then it could mean a saving of 60,000 litres of petrol or diesel daily which is a significant saving, while also putting much less pressure on the environment. Asija of Eco Cab says that burning one litre of fuel requires 15.2 kg of oxygen. He also opines that non-interference by authorities like MCG could be a blessing in disguise as municipal authorities, if they are overly active, make it quite difficult for the rickshaw pullers to operate - as has happened in Delhi. In the National Capital, around 8 lakhs rickshaw pullers, the majority of whom operate illegally, have to bribe the law enforcers and police as well, because of the archaic municipal laws that make it very difficult to own and pull a rickshaw. In fact a rickshaw is the only vehicle for which one licence is required to own it, and another is required to pull it. Legally, a rickshaw owner can't out rent a vehicle but, ironically, across the NCR the operating model of this industry is based on renting. There are a large number of contractors in Gurgaon as well, who own a few to a few hundred rickshaws, and rent them out to seasonal migrants.
While the implementation of the regulation is lax in Gurgaon and other cities in Haryana, Asija says that Chandigarh has very stringent norms. "Registration of rickshaws there is quite an exercise. One needs to get certificates from the SHO and health officials yearly, which is a frustrating exercise for a poor man," he says. In his opinion, the government needs to promote this mode of transport, which can provide an immediate vocation to thousands of poor people. "It is the strong demand for cycle rickshaw services in Indian cities that has kept them alive; the authorities have done little to support this industry," rues Asija. Even the law ensures that rickshaw owners who come from the weakest sections of society are made to suffer, as rules allow the confiscation of a rickshaw, and even its destruction under certain conditions. While recently the Supreme Court has come to the rescue of rickshaw pullers, the law is seldom implemented on Indian road, particularly if it favours the poor and the meek.
The need of the hour, say experts, is for planners to design the road infrastructure and network keeping Non-Motorized Transport in mind. "The way we plan the cities we marginalize the pedestrians, cyclists and rickshaws on the road," says Latika Thukral of IamGurgaon. The need to sensitize the decision makers in the MCG, HUDA and State Administration is also being strongly felt. Sanjay Kaushik of Uthan, an NGO that launched a successful pilot project of Solar Rickshaws, says that if this transport mode is organized properly by a professional organization, in collaboration with the government, then it could be a game changer for public transport. "There is need for proper monitoring and regulation, to ensure that rickshaws remain safe for women, children and the elderly. This is not happening right now as any person, even a rogue, can enter this trade", asserts Kaushik. During his pilot project, Uthaan had tied up with RWAs, fixed the fares and monitored the service well - which made it successful. 
While civic activists bat for cycle rickshaws, the traffic police officials in the 'old' City opine that the slow movement of rickshaws as well as their proliferation causes a lot of jams on the City roads. ASI Om Prakash, while asking a rickshaw puller to move away from the congested chowk, says that there is need to put a check on the increasing numbers of these vehicles. "They move very slowly, do not have lights, and take a turn from anywhere, creating a traffic nightmare. Many times they move in the opposite direction of the traffic, which leads to accidents", claims the police official. The lack of proper identification of rickshaw pullers is also an issue that needs to be taken into cognizance by the authorities. Gurgaon based activist Sarika Bhatt, however, says that in her opinion the traffic intersections in the City, the road network and everything related to it, has not been designed with a proper perspective. She has high hopes on the Gurgaon Manesar Integrated Mobility Plan, which proposes to upgrade the transport infrastructure of the City in a major way. But sceptics argue that the majority of the plans, including the Gurgaon Master Urban Development Plan, have remained on paper to this day – and so it is unlikely that this document will see the light of day. Amit Bhatt of Embarq also says that the Integrated Mobility Plan, particularly in context of Non-Motorized Transport, has a lot of positives - but the need is to get it implemented in letter and spirit. 
Integrated Gurgaon Manesar Mobility Plan: A Project that could revolutionize Non-Motorized Transport (NMT) in the Millennium City
As a part of the NMT Plan under the Integrated Mobility Plan, suggestions have been made for the provision of foot paths, safe pedestrian crossing facilities (at-grade and grade-separated) and Non-Motorized Vehicles (NMV) lanes. It is proposed to build footpaths on about 500 kms of road length. The Plan also proposes an installation of 210 kms of dedicated cycle lanes on the roads of the City, as several cycle routes of upto 3 to 4 km can be made. The Plan also states that the development of this network must be integrated along with improvements in the public transport network. Pedestrians' safe-crossing facilities include at-grade facilities like zebra crossings and pedestrian signals; and grade-separated facilities include Foot Over Bridges and subways. As the volumes of pedestrians and vehicle traffic increases, more grade-separated facilities are warranted. 
In order to encourage and regulate cycle rickshaws in Gurgaon, the Plan suggests that the fare of cycle rickshaws and the registration of the vehicles must be regulated on the lines of auto-rickshaws. Cycle rickshaws must be asked to use Non-Motorized Vehicle (NMV) lanes, and the rickshaws must also be provided with parking stations at bus stands, railway terminals, and near commercial areas.

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