Lose-lose propositions on public expenditure need to change

For the first time, I feel that the long-sought Commuter Rail System is within reach. The state government appears willing to fund this in the Budget, and an initial round of money should help create the momentum for building out the solution in the next 3-4 years. And the national government too appears broadly ok with the plan. With this, the frustrating cycle of each waiting for the other to act will hopefully come to an end.

Many people have been part of trying to make this happen, and if it does – as seems likely – we should count this as a fantastic example of what public ideation and advocacy can achieve on a large scale to tackle a complex problem. I realise there are still many more steps to be cleared, but even having reached where we are now is a sign that a new model of governance – with faster cycles of public discourse and decision-making – should be possible as citizens become more and more engaged.

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One of the reasons the annual state Budgets are such a weak exercise in powering growth is that there is not much money to spend. After subtracting the interests on loans, the effort to clear pending bills, social sector spending on health and education, the subsidies for various things – many of which are unproductive – and the wage bill, there is only about 6% of the budget that can be used for anything new. And the preference of governments is always to give away more subsidies to rural areas even with this money.

I don’t mind welfare costs, but we should ensure that those sections that are productive are strengthened – this will in fact create money to support some welfare costs too. Right now, public finances are simply being used up in a way that even public services and welfare that should result from this money aren’t showing up properly. The lose-lose thinking on public expenditure needs to change.

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The government proposes to add 1000 buses in the next year’s Budget to BMTC. It’s useful, but not great. To understand why, let’s look at the numbers.

1. The fleet strength in 6500 buses. That’s the starting point.

2. Using a global thumb rule of 110-120 buses per lakh of population we should have at least 13000 buses, if we want to nudge people from private to public transport. That means the deficit is 50%.

3. The buses last 9-10 years, which means about 700 buses are pulled from service every year, and need to be replaced.

4. The population of the city keeps growing, and BMTC needs to add another 200 buses a year to the fleet strength to keep up with this growth.

5. So, each year we need to add 900 buses to remain AT THE SAME LEVEL OF SERVICE against what is needed – i.e. 50% deficit.

6. And now we are proposing to add 1000 buses – and that is considered unusually high.

That’s the problem.

What’s the solution? Double, or even triple the bus fleet. Here’s the most simple way of thinking about BMTC ins Bangalore. 6500 buses carry half the city. 55 lakh vehicles carry the other half.

It’s obvious. But only if we choose to see.

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