Mr Minister, when did you last use public transport?

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modi-and-cameroonFor those following the fortunes of David “Pig-gate” Cameron, these may not be the best of times to hold him aloft as an example of anything worth emulating but Narendra Modi could learn a thing or two about the common touch from Cameron. The British Prime Minister is known to take to the London Underground on a whim, as one Sanyogita Mayer from India found out to her utter surprise a few years ago. At the time, a Daily Mail report quoted the startled woman as telling Cameron that politicians in India would never travel by public transport. Swraj Paul, the British billionaire of Indian origin, shared a similar anecdote with this columnist a decade ago. ‘What was he doing outside a metro station?’ was the reaction reaching Paul after a photograph of him standing outside a London Underground station was published by the Indian media. ‘Little do some Indians realise that it is an easier mode of travel,’ Paul chuckled matter-of-factly. Now, that in the context of a raging debate in India over inadequacy of mass rapid public transport systems and efficacy of car-free days in cities, is telling.

Ever wondered how frequently Union Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu uses the Delhi Metro or the Airport Express Metro? Unless Naidu suffers from Alzheimer’s, in which case he shouldn’t be holding the portfolio, his ministry had put out a statement on 23 June 2014 that Naidu “would henceforth avail [himself of ] the Delhi Airport Metro Line for commuting to and from the International Airport.” The minister, the statement concluded, “would urge his cabinet colleagues also to do likewise.” What came of it? Your guess is as good as mine. As for Modi, his only day out so far on the Delhi Metro was a brief affair; it came about not because of any altruism but because he wanted to travel by the Metro to Faridabad for the inauguration of the extension of the service. That he could, in the process, oblige selfie-seeking commuters would have settled it for him. The erstwhile UPA government didn’t fare any better. Its petroleum minister, Veerappa Moily, did his bit (of lip service) by travelling on the Delhi Metro ostensibly to cut oil import bills. The minister chose Wednesdays for his weekly date with the Metro whenever he is in town. Nothing came of it either. Why only Naidu and Moily; when was the last time an Arvind “Aam Aadmi” Kejriwal used public transport?

Decades after it was first conceptualised, the Millennium City of Gurgaon took a fancy to celebrating World Car Free Day (22 September) this week. Going forward, the district administration promises to make every Tuesday car-free in the area where the it hub is located. One can only hope that it is not a passing fad. Delhi says it would be next; its transport minister has declared a stretch of road between Red Fort and India Gate car-free on 22 October, the day Dusseshra would be celebrated. The minister, we are told, wants to repeat the exercise on the 22nd of every month. Now this is one virus which is going viral but nobody’s complaining!

Hyderabad is the only city where this initiative seems to have taken root after it was introduced on 6 August and the credit for it must go to the geeks, techies and IT czars, in general, and the Hyderabad Software Enterprises Association, in particular. If it is Tuesday for Gurgaon, Hyderabad prefers car-free Thursdays. Advocates of car-free days would cite any number of benefits accruing from the practice: No parking blues, less road rage, reduction in greenhouse gas emissions leading to lower levels of pollution, savings on fuel, walking or cycling for better health…. But there’s the rub: Without a predictable, efficient, rapid and safe public transport, the idea is doomed to fail. Yet, the irony is that while cycling clubs are proliferating, there are no takers for the Public Bicycle Sharing scheme launched by the Delhi Metro.

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