Shillong and its Public Transport System

By Toki Blah

A friend who is also a concerned citizen of this city, who from time to time raises his concerns over the dismal civic amenities that we as innocent residents are suffered to endure, recently raised a post in his FB page with the remark that, apparently the powers that be are once again contemplating the reintroduction of Government managed city buses in an effort to ease public transport woes. To be candid about it, one is forced to admit that many who heard it were at a loss as to whether to cry in joyous relief or to cry in despair yet again. There was joy that finally by some twist of fate or the other, perhaps because of 2023 elections, this Govt has managed to hear the general public’s cry of misery while there were an equal number of skeptics who, with abundant historical reasons to back up their skepticism, were suspicious of the real objective of those in charge of Urban public services. People cannot be blamed if they see a hidden agenda or a Government sponsored business behind the prospect – business to line the pockets of some political desperado out to make a few bucks to sponsor his/her political foray in 2023 than any genuine concern over civic services to the people. Well, whatever it may be lets assume that it will materialize and that it will do so with the benefit of the public in mind. If so, I guess a few observations will do no harm.
In the first instance the venture of the Government to provide viable public transport to the commuters of this city started with the introduction of 120 (JNNURM) red coloured buses in 2012 . The buses under the JNNURM came as a vast relief to thousands of commuters, who were sick and tired of arrogant cabbies. In a short span of time the red JNNURM buses became the favoured means of city transport much to the chagrin and regret of resentful taxi drivers who suddenly found their merciless stranglehold hold over a hapless public vanishing. There was hope at last but like all other hopes in the Abode of the Clouds , this particular hope too soon bit the dust. Providing a sustainable and viable public transport service was too much of a burden; too high an expectation; too professionally ethical for MUDA or the Transport Department to bear. The pressure from the powerful taxi owners and drivers’ association too powerful to resist. Something had to give way and sooner than later the public was silently but forcefully eased back to accept shared taxis, as the most viable form of Public Transport. A voiceless public, so dependent and conditioned on powerful and authoritative Pressure Groups (ki sengbha lang) to speak on its behalf, found itself abandoned and forsaken on the critical issue of public transport. Not a squeak of protest was heard over this official indifference to public needs. So do we also keep quiet? I think not. I believe the time has come to ask and raise some very embarrassing questions over this humiliation of civic services. So lets begin.
First and foremost there has never been any rational official explanation as to the need to hand over the management and running of the JNNURM buses by Self Help Groups (SHGs). I hasten to add that I have nothing over the concept of SHGs. My personal experience with SHGs, especially women SHGs in empowering village communities has been a very happy and rewarding experience. SHGs are mainly responsible for changing and uplifting the whole economy of Bangladesh. We are however speaking of trained, capacitated and legally competent groups of individuals focused on developing themselves through efficient community service. They thrive and prosper because they swear by modern concepts of management based on transparency, accountability and good inhouse management. Profit is the last thing on the menu of development oriented SHGs. The SHGs to whom the fate of JNNURM buses were entrusted were anything but! In the case of JNNURM SHGs they were more of a business entity. Most of the SHGs were created simply to access the business opportunity offered by the Government Almost all had no balance sheets and it is doubtful if any of them ever heard of one. There was a total absence of Government supervising, monitoring, checking, evaluating and assessing the performance of the SHGs in providing service to the commuters. Government simply discarded its role and responsibility in the project and blindly relied on the goodwill and sense of responsibility of its contracted SHGs. It is now evident that the whole exercise was based on good faith, a very bad business model to depend on. Not surprising the whole exercise came crashing down round our ears.
I know that I am laying myself open to the accusation of being “wise on hindsight” and I willingly accept the charge and openly admit that’s what is exactly happening. My only excuse for my most despicable anti- Government rant is the rumour that once again the Government is going to try to install a public transport service through Government busses but apparently without any attempt at introspection to find out what went wrong last time such an exercise was attempted. I justify my stand on that ground but I believe it’s a perfectly sensible thing to do if we are to (a) prevent another stupid, sightless, politically motivated exercise at wasting public money and (b)not fail once again in our attempt to provide a harassed and utterly distressed public of a workable and sustainable public transport system.
In this writeup I wish to raise the issue as to why an existing transport wing of the Govt, known as the Meghalaya Transport Corporation (MTC) was not considered on taking on the responsibility of providing Shillong with the efficient transport system it is crying for. The MTC of yore ran buses and provided service to commuters travelling to Gauhati, Silchar, Jowai, Tura and Sohra. It had workshops, parking lots, trained technicians, expert management in the shape of experienced operational plus administrative personnel, all the paraphernalia and basic infrastructure that no SHG was expected to have. Why was the MTC sidelined and inexperienced, green, dubious fly by night SHGs entrusted with the running and management of the JNNRUM buses? My concern is based on the suspicion that we might once again fail to learn from our mistakes. If Shillong public transport is to be resumed and be successful through Government buses let us not ignore but learn from our past mistakes. At least let’s try.
So what should we now do? First let’s restructure, revamp, resurrect the infrastructure and restaff the human resources we already possess in the MTC. For this to happen a committed no nonsense management must first be identified and put in place. Imperative to ensure that inward looking selfish political control over the management is prevented. Would an experienced, spirited and public minded MTC Chairman be so difficult to find? Well if not, let nominal Chairmanship can be with the Minister Transport but for heaven’s sake no failed politician or political chamcha be foisted on the Corporation. We find that such worthies are entirely unfit to even run an LP school but certified geniuses in spending crores of Government money! It’s the last thing we need. Get a good bureaucrat with proven track record in delivering results, with a proven record of saying NO to interfering politicians (perhaps hard to find among Yes Sir No Sir, spineless civil servants) as Managing Director, with qualified, experienced technical staff as support in the Administrative and Operations wing of the MTC. Let the Board of the MTC be technically strong yet with a token representation from the public (perhaps a Rangbah Shnong) and possibly a representative of Shillong Schools be nominated. Routes, embarking and disembarking points be identified. New parking sites perhaps in New Shillong can be identified. It will also put a stop to the present covetous eyeing, by certain honorable and respected gentlemen, of current MTC stands as potential shopping malls. We need running buses. Shopping malls can wait! Set up a dedicated mobile ticket checking team to monitor day to day performance of the running buses. Check the passengers for holding valid tickets and those who fail to produce a ticket be punished with a hefty, on the spot, fine. No use punishing the ticket collector. Fine the commuter instead. It will have a resounding impact. The travelling public itself will then start insisting on tickets. No bus with a damaged ticket dispenser will be allowed to operate. The amount collected will be electronically recorded and pilfering of revenue will stop. Once this happens the MTC buses will then be run on a sustainable basis. It’s what we need. It’s what a desperate travelling public of Shillong must demand. It’s a proven fact that with this Government only those who demand, who shout, who agitate will get their due! Sad but true.

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