by K Vijayachandran
TRANSPORT INFRASTRUCTURE IN KERALA
NEED FOR NEW PERSPECTIVES AND PRIORITIES*
Transport sector is the weakest link in Kerala infrastructure. Roads were extensively damaged during the last monsoon and for several weeks and the promise of the Chief Minister to complete the temporary repair jobs on a war-footing were not fulfilled, despite the district-wise extortion of engineers and workmen by his nineteen cabinet colleagues. There are endless talks, deliberations and conventions on numerous projects mostly ill-conceived, and the State has been spending huge sums on project studies and consultancies during the past two decades. In the meanwhile, truck operators struck work and paralyzed goods movement within the state for more than a week: The dispute was over the quantum of contribution from truck owners towards workers social security fund.
The small-time private bus operators and their ill-paid employees hardly enjoy even a minimum of social security: they strike work and disrupt public transport almost every year, district-wise or at state level. Government looks at the Kerala State Road Corporation (KSRTC), its only tool to intervene in a crisis situation in passenger transport or goods movement, as a mere white elephant maintained for giving jobs to some twenty five thousand employees: Minister for transport has recently gone on record that, insuring KSRTC buses is an avoidable luxury. According to yet another news report its Managing Director has prepared a comprehensive plan for salvaging that organization. The very approach of salvaging an essential utility organization is sure sign of an altogether sickly mind-set. The right and rational approach is to look at KSRTC as a major organizational and technological resource for the development of transport infrastructure in the state and not as a liability.
Despite more than two decades of development and large investments, the Kollam-Kottappuram water way (NW-III) continues to be dysfunctional. The Inland Waterway Authority of India (IWAI), a central government organization dedicated to waterways development in the country, who owns and operate NW-III seems to be out of synch with Kerala Government: Its representatives were conspicuous by their absence in the recent dedication ceremonies on NH-III, organized under the auspices of Chief Minister and Irrigation Minister. Water transport department as well as Kerala Shipping and Inland Navigation Corporation (KSINC) look more like orphans, unable to make any creative initiative under the prevailing confusion all around. The massive two thousand Crores Rupee Kerala State Transport Project (KSTP) under implementation for the past five years, with World Bank support, has proved to be a total disaster. Express Highway and Cochin Metro, the two major high-tech initiatives, based on the advice by external consultants, have failed to enthuse private investors, and do not find a place in the eleventh plan.
Latest Economic Review of Kerala State Planning Bord sums up state’s transport infrastructure in the following words: Transport system of the State consists of 1.61 lakh Km of road, 1148 Km of Railways,1687 Km of Inland Waterways and 111 statue miles of Airways and 17 Ports. As part of the preparations for the eleventh plan, SPB was doing a serious stocktaking of the transport infrastructure in the state, which gets very little focused attention. On a per capita basis, Kerala has more than the average share of route KM of railway: However rail development is the near total responsibility of the Central Government, and Indian Railways prefer to interact directly with Railway Users Associations on issues of rail development, rather than the liaising with local governments. Inland waterways mostly exist as a potential: irrigation department is the custodian of inland waters and the canal system.
Kerala, as we know, is a narrow strip of land with a 560 Kilometre coastline on the West, and mountain reliefs on the East. Every 14 kilometre on the average, there is a river system flowing Westward, and forty-one drainage basins rush their heavy monsoon run-off, into a huge inland water body, stretching along the coastline and shaking hands with the Arabian sea, at half a dozen locations called pozhi. Thanks to this unique hydrology, more than half of Kerala population live on its coastal planes, measuring only a third of total land area. This coastal plane, on the two sides of the backwaters network, with its lakes, canals and estuaries, numerous seaports of antiquity and large population centres, is developing into a single modern metro of some twenty million people; population densities crossing the level of 3000 persons per sqkm, for several long stretches.
The North-South inland waterway along this backwater system, and the navigable stretches upstream of the forty-one rivers, were developed by several generations of Kerala rulers, before and after the great Cheraman Perumal took to Islam. This 1700 Kilometre long inland waterway was the backbone of Kerala economy and served its culture and commerce for centuries. Due to a variety of factors, neglect and ignorance in the main, these arteries of history turned dysfunctional, within a few decades of Indian independence, inflicting heavy damages. Reconstructing Kerala culture and economy along the ancient waterway network, with the help of modern Science and Technology, could be a twenty-first century dream project. Smart Waterways, suggested by our former President, was a bold dream with a historical rationale. However, the recent promises made by Kerala Chief Minister and his advisor on the waterway front are hardly convincing, in the absence of detailed plans and logistics.
Economic Review of SPB has attempted a detailed review of the 161,000 KM length of Kerala roads: Road density in Kerala is 414 km/100 sqkm and it is far ahead of the national average of 75 km. Road length per lakh population in Kerala is 506 km against the national average of 259 km. Kerala with a population density of more than double the national average has already set aside large land areas for road construction and the policy decision of minimal or cautious expansion in terms of length as well as widening of roads was the right one. However, this decision was criticised by a section of media as motivated by ideology. Quality road construction based improved designs to suit the local conditions and preventive maintenance in a scientific manner are the need of the hour for improving road performance and reducing costs.
Local bodies are the custodians of more than three fourth of Kerala roads and they are totally ill-equipped to handle the design, construction and maintenance of the roads and totally dependant on petty contractors: There are no efforts to develop their skills as a part of public policy and society look at them as corrupt middlemen with no worthwhile productive roll. Such lumpen views are supported even by political parties, who look at contractors as well as the engineering community as corrupt and no better than anti-socials. Now a parallel PWD has been set up under the department of local self-government: Nothing much could be expected even from this new dispensation, unless these are followed up by appropriate changes in systems and procedures and an attitudinal change towards the engineering profession and the construction industry.
State PWD is one of the worst administered departments in the State. It looks after the State Highways (18%) and the National Highways (1%) which enjoy the support of a Design, Research, Research, Investigations and Quality Board (DRIQ Board) and the Kerala Highway Research Institute (KHRI) at Peechi. However, political leadership rarely look at these institutions for technology development and the engineering activities related the public works : They are mostly used for disciplining the technical staff, through transfers and placements. Professional accountability hardly exists in this department thanks to the game of corruption that so very diligently played by all political parties and the numerous staff associations attached to them. Political and bureaucratic corruption is widespread in the PWD and allied public sector organisations like Kerala Construction Corporation, Nirmithi Kendras and Roads and Bridges Corporation: Even the expenditure committee of the legislature show little interest in undertaking performance audit of public works, which is part of their constitutional responsibility.
Totally erroneous perceptions on the creative role of the engineering profession and civil engineering contractors, as well as wide spread corruption at political level have virtually eroded the professional capabilities of Kerala PWD and other engineering departments in the State. Technical Inspection Wing of the Finance Department, acting as Super Auditors and playing the role of a fifth wheel in PWD, has eroded the professional integrity and accountability of engineering profession in the state. And, as a result, political corruption continues unabated at all levels of administration in the State. Kerala State Transport Project, formulated by the bureaucracy for attracting IBRD finance and implemented during tenth plan, was supposed to address some of these structural problems through an Institution Strengthening Action Plan (ISAP) component for capacity building in the transport sector, including the water transport sector. However, the reverse of Institutional Strengthening was the net outcome of KSTP, with huge cost escalations and unseemly disputes with a foreign contractor. In other words, the problem of technological backwardness and incompetence, has turned even more acute after implementing this World Bank Project.
High-Tech projects such as Express Highway or Kochi Metro, involving billions of dollars of foreign investments need to be seen in the background of this massive erosion of professional capacities and standards in the state, thanks to political bungling and short-sightedness. This weakness is reflected not only in the planning and construction of roads but also in networking them with other modes of transport rail and inland waterways. State Road Transport Corporations plays a leading role in organising comparatively efficient public transport systems in most other states. In this respect, Kerala lags far behind other southern states: It has only one RTC and most parts of the state are dominated by private buses which simply outnumber KSRTC buses by eight to one. There are only 135 RTC buses per million population in Kerala, compared to 284 in Tamilnadu and 253 in Andhra Pradesh.
The comparative table constructed for the three states illustrates the inefficient use of transport infrastructure in Kerala, due to the criminal neglect of its RTC. Dependency on private bus operators has resulted in extremely poor vehicle utilisation: There are more than 1100 passenger buses per million population in Kerala, compared to 393 in Tamilnadu and 253 in Andhra. And, these numbers do not include the large number of mini buses and vans that operate illegal passenger services on Kerala roads. Public transport is hardly any better in Kerala, despite the much larger deployment of passenger buses and other vehicles which are over-crowding the road network work.
Number of three wheelers per million population in Kerala is nearly three to four times that of TN and AP. In the use of two wheelers, Kerala is far ahead of the other two states, if mopeds are excluded from the count. Kerala has relatively large number of personal vehicles including taxis and private motor cars. It has 112 motor vehicles on the road, per thousand population, compared to 72 in AP and 132 in TN: on an area basis, AP has only less than one-fourth and TN about two-third number of vehicles on the road compared to Kerala. Karanataka is, possibly, no different: however full range of data could not be immediately ascertained.
|Table: Inter-state comparisons|
|Population density pers/sqkm||275||478||819|
|Vehicles per mln popln|
|Total motor vehicles||72882||132374||111785|
|Accidents per year per 1000 vehicles|
|No of accidents||6.9||6.2||11.9|
No wonder, that accident rate per vehicle in Kerala is nearly double that of the other two states. The fact that more than sixty persons die on Kerala roads every week, is an indicator for the poor quality of road transport infrastructure in the state. It is common experience that, long and medium distance travel or inter-city travel is fairly comfortable in the State, thanks to KSRTC and the railways, mainly because of the long distant trains originating from or terminating in Kerala. Intra-district and city-town services are the weakest links in the public transport network in Kerala and these public transport segments are mostly under the tyranny of small-time private bus operators and the Regional Transport Authorities headed by the district collectors. Routes and licences given to private operators become their private property, subject to judicial reviews even by the High Court. It is high time that public road transport network get liberated from these archaic statutes and brought on par with more civilised countries, where it is organised inevitably under a public monopoly.
Kerala should be prepared to learn from the experience of other southern states in using their RTCs to great advantage, in developing cost-effective road transport network. There is a consensus on developing a North-South mass rapid transport system, for the six hundred kilometre long metro of twenty million people that is emerging along Kerala coast, by strengthening and diversifying the existing rail route. The NH-47 and NH-17 along with the state highways and district and panchayat roads as well as waterways could be used for developing an efficient public transport network, provided public transport authorities are created in every district under the districts, cities and towns, with the full involvement of the local Governments. KSRTC and its network of depots and garages in almost all districts of the Kerala could be used for organising joint ventures with local governments, for designing and operating efficient public transport network at the local level. This could greatly reduce the traffic pressure on the State as well as National Highways, which are being heavily used as streets and vehicle parks.
Private buses and their routes need to be gradually taken over for the public purpose of creating an efficient and cost effective public transport network in the state. Such reforms have nothing to do with socialism: Public transport network owned and operated by public authorities at the appropriate levels is the standard pattern in almost all developed countries, including even the USA. Vehicle load on our roads will drastically come down, along with the cost of their maintenance. The unhealthy tendency of crowding of Highways and Bypasses will be considerably checked, once most places in the interior get connected by efficient public transport network. It is high time that, Kerala develops an integrated perspective on such rational lines and decide on its transport sector priorities.
Simplistic solutions like ADB and IRDB loans or handing over of the highways to private investors as now agreed to with the Central Government could only complicate the problems faced by our transportation sector. Enhancing the institutional capabilities of the Government at all levels (similar to the ISAP component under KSTP) is the need of the hour.
*As published in the Passline on October 2007
*WHAT IS TO BE DONE
FOR DEVELOPING AN EFFICIENT PUBLIC TRANSPORT SYSTEM?
- Restructure KSRTC with the well defined mission and vision of organizing an effective road transport system for the state [section 18 of the RTC Act 1950], well coordinated with rail and inland water transport.
- Management of KSRTC should be professionalized at all levels and its board of directors should consist of full time professionals as functional directors, elected representatives of employees and nominees of user organizations as in the case of most public utilities in developed countries.
- Each revenue district has its own geographical, demographic and cultural features as well as special needs for integrating with rail and inland water transport. KSRTC may organize subsidiary corporations or companies for each revenue district along with the district panchayats and other institutions of local governments.
- Tamilnadu model has been greatly successful and we may take lessons from them for the re-structuring and re-organizing of KSRTC.
- There is no piecemeal solution for the rapidly deteriorating public transport network in the state which has already become unsustainable. A wholesome view is the need of the hour and we may contract even IBRD or ADB loans for implementing plans drawn up based such holistic views: Even private operators may play a role in that type of scenario.
* Supplemented on 05-02-2010