No Transport For The Poor

In Cachar district of Assam, the lack of publicly funded transportation hassles the lives of the poor.

Many villagers in Cachar district commute regularly to the district headquarters, Silchar. Over sixty thousands travel daily, and an overwhelming majority rely on the bus service to do so. But the state disengagement from the transport sector and the current lack of investment are drastically undermining the quality and availability of the government-funded transport service. Currently, only eight vehicles are run by the Assam State Transport Corporation (ASTC). These buses are in no way able to keep up public demand. As a result, many passengers have to travel on privately owned buses, paying much higher fares for the same service.

Indra is a fruit seller living in Pakadnaki, a village some kilometers away from Silchar. Travelling to the city headquarters is a necessity for him, in order to sell the fruits he is growing in his village, but with no public bus to take him there, his business is far from profitable. “To travel to Pakadnaki, I have to spend Rs 50 daily for a private vehicle. I earn about Rs 100 each day. It is too expensive for the poor to afford this. ASTC buses could bring relief to us, poor people” says Indra. He also points out that the situation has worsened recently due to the booming inflation that plagues the Indian economy. Indeed, private bus companies instantly passed the costs of inflation on customers. Similarly, collective jeeps and taxis, that are also popular modes of transport in the absence of buses, have, with escalating fuel prices, seen their fares rise sharply. Ultimately, it is the poor who bear the brunt of the price rise. For many, mobility comes at too high a cost.

In Assam as in the rest of India, collective transport still remain the main mode of transportation for most of the population, and the Indian transportation system is among the most heavily utilized in the world.  But governments across the country have been unable, and reluctant,  to meet the growing demands for transport infrastructure and services. Massive investments would need to be made to cope with the outdated infrastructure and the booming number of commuters. As a result of the lack of government investment, many new companies are starting operations in the transport business. Buses in particular have turned out to be a profitable sector, with low level of investment needed, and a large demand. In Cachar district of Assam, fifty-seven privately owned buses are circulating, thus taking over most of the transportation service.

Privatization was the remedy advocated by the World Bank in 2002. It was believed that this would improve the efficiency and profitability of the transportation system in India. But as in Cachar district, such measures are likely to have disastrous effects on the lives of the poorest. A mere Rs 10 hike in bus fares, risks putting the journey out of their reach, curbing the little mobility they have. In Cachar and elsewhere, it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that mobility does not become a luxury that only a few can afford.

Today’s video was made by our Community Correspondent in Assam, Ajeet Singh.  Altough he was raised  in Imphal, Ajit was born in Cachar district, and still feels deeply connected to this area, where his roots are. He is a professional journalist, but being part of IndiaUnheard gave him the opportunity to tell a different  kinds of stories, that unveil the lack of development, the corruption and negligence of government officials, and the suffering s of the poor and powerless. Documenting the lack of publicly funded transport was a way to expose the disengagement of the state towards the poor. “Lot of people do not pay attention to this type of problem. They will just pay the extra amount without giving it a thought, but for the poor, it matters, and the state should do something”, explains Ajeet.

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