The year was 1969. I had passed out of IIM Calcutta and joined the then Coca Cola Export Corporation and was assigned territory sales in UP and thereafter Tamilnadu and Kerala. Even in those days, Coca Cola had 99 distributors in Kerala alone and traveling during summer meant extensive travel by car and bus. So, here is a coincidental observation.
It used to be possible in Tamilnadu to cover approximately 55-60 km per hour and no matter how hard we tried, the quality of the roads was the biggest constraint and we could never better that. We are talking about taxis (Ambassador cars) and narrow roads. Buses did slightly worse at approximately 45 – 50 km per hour from start to destination. Now here is the coincidence. You would think that this has dramatically changed in the last 50 years.
Whether you travel by car or bus, and notwithstanding the improved status of the roads today, the timings have not changed dramatically. Yes, it is true that vehicles can touch a speed of 100 km/hour today. Yet at the end of the journey, your average distance traveled per hour is not substantially different from what it was back then in 1969. A combination of more vehicular traffic on the road, more villages and humans on the road. And of course, as you enter major destinations the traffic comes down to a crawl these days.
Its not as though the quality of vehicles has not gone up. And the quality of the roads as well. Today, booking a ticket is a synch, on any of the online travel agencies such as TicketGoose, RedBus, Travelyaari or Abhibus. The bus is air conditioned and the leg space is far superior to what it was in those days. There is even a sleeper facility available, although not the most convenient for tall persons such as me. But most important, the bus is manufactured by reputable global companies with an eye on passenger comfort. Traveling by bus today, especially for distances upto 250 km, is a pleasure.
2. Customers always got the last priority.
When India gained independence, our country’s leaders wanted to uplift the masses. In the absence of any previous experience of managing a country, their noble thoughts were bigger than their capabilities to implement. The economics of “how to achieve greater good for the maximum no of people in the shortest period of time” followed a simple mantra of providing only “affordable” services. Except that here, “affordable” was defined as “those which our leaders thought that the country can afford”. And those which our leaders thought were “luxury” were automatically removed from consideration.
Can India afford air conditioning in the Parliament house? This was a major debate for several months in the media in the early 50s.
Should India allow private companies to make a profit on passenger road transport? Or should the state take over this function and “save” the common man? We all know that it was the latter that prevailed and between increased incompetency of the state transport corporations and the looting by politicians, our state transport corporations have become an eyesore and the ultimate symbol of inefficiency and “couldn’t care about the customer”. Prices continue to be dictated by the Government and the very condition of the buses, is an insult to modern transport.
Which is not to say that wisdom has finally dawned on the “powers that be”. Even while passenger transport is being privatised in a big way across the developed nations, India continues to be governed by the Road transport Act dating back to the early 50s. And that is why, an ordinary citizen cannot travel by air conditioned bus between say Chennai and Trichy. The Government auctions routes between stations and on these routes, the fares are controlled. The value in the value chain is therefore captured by the Government, who provides little value back for the value that it captures. In some instances, the no of schedules on a route (defined as travel between 2 stations), has not changed in 65 years. Can you believe that? And these tickets cannot be booked in advance. Passengers go to the bus stand and board the buses as and when they leave. You cannot obtain these tickets on TicketGoose, RedBus, TravelYaari or Abhibus. It is not possible for a bus operator to not only adhere to the prescribed pricing formula of the Government but also provide air conditioned buses and new well appointed buses.
Which brings me to the main point. What is the use of having roads, if thru “other means” the Government prohibits the existence of comfortable travel between cities?
Do you book your tickets through TicketGoose, RedBus, TravelYaari or Abhibus? Share us your experience in the comments!