Monday, 5 May 2014

How to make a mess of things

Elections have been over in Bangalore for a couple of weeks now and its a long wait for the results due in mid May. As is the wont in India, all government work comes to a standstill when elections are announced as the result of a "model election code" which is supposed to ensure that incumbents don't benefit by doing populist stuff just before elections. Indian love doing nothing and so all this freeze in activity is considered a good thing.

Consequently, when elections are over , it is also the time to do unpopular things.  By the time the next elections come, its all forgotten. In keeping with this tradition, the Karnataka government has been busy raising tariffs , leading to howls of protests. Vatal Nagaraj, a local character known for innovative protests  has remained true to form yesterday.

I want to pick on one such move - raising the toll on the road to airport as a perfect example of everything that is wrong in India about how we go after things.

First the facts. Bangalore airport is some 50 kms out of the city. There is a highway that connects the city to the airport. They have recently upgraded it with flyovers , avoiding all signals , etc etc and it is now a super smooth ride to the airport. All very good. Now comes the question of who will pay for all this and how.

The obvious solution is a toll. That's what the authorities have done. The problem is that in one full sweep , they have implemented a toll of Rs 115 (US $ 2) overnight.

Let's start with the amount itself. It is one of the largest (probably THE largest) single toll anywhere in the country. By Indian standards it is an astronomical toll. Still, that is probably the revenues required to offset the cost of building the roads and flyovers. But as with everything in India, there is little transparency. Nobody has bothered to lay down the facts of the costs and the economics clearly - if they had done it , many would probably consider the toll justified. As it stands, the sniff of somebody profiteering is very high.

Secondly, it would have been far better to prepare the public. Instead on one midnight it was just enforced. People catching the early morning flights suddenly found a demand for Rs 115. It is inevitable that there would be anger.

Everybody and anybody is protesting, irrespective of the logic.

The most galling protest comes from the cab drivers ferrying people to the airport. Their grouse is that it will eat into profits. Complete rubbish. It is the passenger that pays the toll. No cabbie returns from the airport empty.  Its a ridiculous protest.

The next constituency that is protesting is the lot going to the airport. The rich and pampered 0.001% who travel by air. They don't want to pay Rs 100 for the super smooth road to the airport to catch a flight that will cost Rs 5000. This is the same lot who were moaning about poor infrastructure and roads to the airport. Their solution is to abolish the toll and let the cost be borne by the government (read the poor non airport user). Fantastic.

The next lot who are protesting are the opposition politicians. I am not sure what they are seeking to gain from this - the rich using the airport road is a miniscule constituency and why defend them ?? On the contrary I would have expected them to protest saying the toll should be doubled.

The next step is very predictable. A few toll booths will be vandalised. Some old foggy with nothing better to do will launch a public interest litigation in the courts. Thee wise courts will immediately issue a stay on the toll and take the next 74.63 years to issue a ruling. Meanwhile the idiot who invested in the road will go bankrupt.

And then we wonder why infrastructure is so poor in India.


The Million Miler said...

While I do sympathise with the idiot who built this road as a business proposition for his business model being seriously challenged by all and sundry including the honourable courts, the fundamental issue is what happens to all your tax money (note - yours not mine, no income in India, Not Resident, No Tax YAY!!) If in the first place the Governments(!?) centre and state, had some transparency and accountability (RTI notwithstanding), you will see less of potholes and more of roads. Add to the mix the mango people, who are the corruptors, (as against the bureaucracy which is the corruptee), there is no surprise you will see a lot more of these!

Sandhya Sriram said...

i think, the worry is not about the road to the airport but what precedent it sets. the road links into the National Highway and you can already see the consequence of so many tolls. if you have to go from bangalore to chennai, you atleast pay a 500 on tolls. Why am I paying the private companies is because all my tax money is sitting in tax havens as black money and i have to pay for every thing on top.

Especially, as i holiday in the US and when i see this part of the world, where infrastructure is so good, of course, its built over time but someone has to build.

its just that dual economy, one end, you are paying loads and loads of money and an entire tax recovery mechanism which recruits Ramarathinams in truck loads to manage this and after all this effort where does it go!!

anyways, another interesting timepass for some politicians and employement opportunities for some media people. so good.

Sriram Khé said...

I am with you on this, Ramesh, even though, like TMM, I have nothing to gain or lose personally.

You write about the big fuss that the wealthy elite are making over the 100 rupee toll, which will be nothing compared with the airfare itself. But then it is no different from the passengers getting down from the air-conditioned coaches at railway stations and haggling with the porter over five rupees. We humans are a strange lot!

The issues you raise are important ones in terms of understanding public and private goods. We affluent folks are the ones who make use of a great deal of the physical and cyber infrastructure. When it comes to cyber infrastructure, we seem to automatically think of that as a private good, yet we think of the real world infrastructure as a public good for which there should not be user fees! The toll you write about seems pragmatic and constructive.

The politics you write about are, well, as my father's old German boss apparently used to remark, "that's India for you."

The Million Miler said...

To Madam Sandhya,
INR 500 I reckon translates to roughly 6 Litres of Petrol which you certainly save over a 350km distance on a good road. In the days before the toll road I used to wind my way thru the towns in North Arcot (staring from Wallajah all the way upto Barugur) on my car. If I was lucky would do the Chennai Bangalore trip in about 9 hours buring 40 litres on the Accent. Now (3 years back) it is about 4.5hours buring 20l on the Baleno (similar car) I'd rather pay INR500 to save INR1600 in petrol and 4.5 hours of my time! You certainly do have an option of not paying toll and take the back roads buring more petrol!

Ramesh said...

@Kiwi - We discussed what happens to the tax money a few posts earlier. It all goes in subsidies (mainly to the better off) and in pensions. No money for road building. The Bangalore municipality is broke.

By the way, YAY a bit sifter. You are enriching Her Majesty's coffers which also goes into the same thing - cossetting the undeserved. Pensions and Medicare in the US, Pensions and NHS in the UK and by whatever names they are called in your land

@Sandhya - Infrastructure in the US is good ?????? Where are you my lady ? The problem about abolishing tolls, is who else should pay for it. If not the road user, then who ? Why should I pay for the BMW owners who are crossing from Delhi to Gurgaon on 8 lane expressways (I am currently doing it because the stupid Supreme Court thought it fit to abolish tolls on that road).

Ramesh said...

@Sriram - That is politics for you everywhere - obfuscation, noise making etc etc. If only the government had made it fit to be transparent, informed people of the cost of infrastructure (one reason why the toll on this airport road is so high is because the speculators bought up property and inflated land prices like crazy when the government had to acquire land), then people would be more accepting.

@Kiwi - I see that you have not lost your finance touch :):):)

Venkat said...

BOT laws are approved through all leagal procedures through constituency. showing these laws tender has been issued to private investors, after huge investment made for developemtn court is rising doubt on its own law. govermet or PWD is also watching silent, its like day robbery.

Ramesh said...

@Venkat - Yes, very true. But I still believe the government should do a PR exercise and convince the public of the costs - rather than just simply enforce it. I only learnt yesterday that it cost above Rs 200 crores to build it.

The Million Miler said...

There is practically nothing that goes to enrich the richest family that's on dole (the house of windsors) from Kiwiland. At best when some members of this family come over to the land of the long white cloud once in a blue moon (like a month ago when the prince, his wife and the kiddo came over) some money is spent on their hospitality/security and such stuff. What really appeals to me from a commercial perspective is my tax dollars actually work. Medical care is free or grossly subsidised (My friend Shriram from the US please note), I take public transport rather than a flash looking german car to work every day and commute the 25Km one way in about 40 minutes and should I choose to take the car, the motorway network is reasonably good, maintained very well. I have a host of City council provided places to go surf, ski, tramp, trek and camp out. My son gets free school education that is really good. Kiwi women were the first ANYWHERE in the world to get the right to vote. The police service and the ambulance service is good and in any survey around quality of life, safety, absence of corruption, healthcare and education, gender equality, we are pretty much in the top 5 along with our Scandinavian friends. And Auckland is in the top 5 most liveable city in the world. When I retire there is a guaranteed government pension - every one irrespective of the fact that you paid tax or never every paid tax ever in your life gets it! We do indulge the monarchy, but that's more a tourist attraction rather than any real affection. Once the queen is gone all bets are off and you'll probably see the republic of enzed emerge hopefully. So I don't really have to say a softer YAY!

Ramesh said...

@Kiwi - Other than the slight problem that you run the daily risk of dropping off the corner of the earth, everything seems fine :):)

By the way, you catch a bus ???????? What has the world come to :(

The Million Miler said...

Actually I walk 300m, catch a bus, ride 3 km,get off at the train station, walk 50m, catch a train, ride 22km, get off, walk 700m to office. Bizarre, what the world has come to, from a million miles in the air to surface miles!

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

@I made a zillion trips in ENZED in 1996-97 while putting in a network in Hong Kong. Telecom NZ was providing software to us as a subcontractor. I travelled around in NZ quite a lot at that time. The first thing that strikes you is how far away it is. I think it takes 3.5 hours to fly from Sydney to Wellington. Second, how absolutely beautiful it is. It was common at that time to leave cars unlocked and doors unlocked in smaller towns in the South Island. In many ways it used to resemble 1950s England. Third, individual people are not all that well-off. To be "flash" was not a nice thing. When I checked in at The Park in Wellington it excited some comment! No one is dirt poor. But people watch what they spend. Largely as a result of David Lange's reforms it was not considered a soft place to go settle down. You need to work and work hard. I used to deal with TNZ and Unisys a lot. I used to go to a bar opposite the Beehive (the NZ Parliament). It was very common for Ministers of the Crown to come in have a couple of pints and go home by public transport.

Prats said...

I agree to whatever you have mentioned on your post, the travelling rich and the unwillingness to pay.
I have just one problem, I landed Tuesday night on the Bangalore airport. After getting into the Taxi around 11PM I started out and reached the toll it took me close to 40-45 minutes to cross the toll, which is more than the time I took when there was no toll road.
I have no problems with 115 bucks but with this standard of service I don't agree.

Ramesh said...

@Prats - The delay is precisely because of agitation, obstruction, etc etc. Even earlier they were collecting the toll. All that has happened is that the amount has gone up from Rs 30 to Rs 115. That should not lead to any additional delays.

Appreciate your speaking for the toll as a user. Its precisely enlightened citizens such as you who can make a difference to India.

Sriram Khé said...

Hmmm ... I wait for the day that Ramesh will refer to me also as an "enlightened citizen" ;)

Anyway, back to the New Zealand tangent ... About the friendliness and people. I will try to get a long story into a short version:
A December a few years ago, a couple of years prior to my divorce, wife, daughter, and I were in NZ for a week. When driving from Auckland to the Bay of Islands, the drive itself stressful not from the traffic but from driving on the "wrong side" of the road and in the late evening hours, we stopped at a small town for dinner. At the only restaurant we found. It was closing time. The manager it depended on the chef's interest to serve us. And got a green light from the chef.

It was about 9pm when we were done with dinner. Wife and I waiting outside for the daughter, who was in the restroom. The only other patrons--a group of old, oldies--were also leaving. One old man asked us where we were from. And where we were going.

He didn't want us to drive to the Bay in the night. He said his friends lived in a spacious home with a gorgeous view and that we should spend the night there. The friends--a husband and wife--agreed. They asked us to drive behind their car.

As we were driving, my daughter is all worried that we were driving into pitch darkness to a stranger's home in a strange country. We eased her mind, though internally worried ;)

It was a spacious home. One bedroom for the daughter. Adjacent bedroom for us. Nighty night all around.

We woke up to the smell of toast and baking and coffee. An extensive breakfast spread on the table. A gorgeous view of the waters from their balcony.
After breakfast and chatting, we were ready to leave. They flatly refused any payment at all.

If such stuff happened all over the world, boy will there be peace and harmony!

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