Angry voices have been heard against the doubling of bus fares in Uttarakhand, with the political opposition leading the fight. The argument is that those who use buses are from the poorest sections of society and cannot afford the hike. At the same time, though, nobody has openly suggested what could be the alternative. Should the government subsidise bus travel? Should it do away with the physical distancing mandated for the buses by leaving the middle seats vacant? Would not the buses then become corona specials, requiring much larger medical expenses as compared to the fare hike?
Every now and then there are commentaries in the media about how India has failed over the years to ‘liberalise’ its economy, thereby giving away the advantage to countries that did. There are others who imply that the steps taken in this direction by government have actually created difficulties for the people. The truth is that the socialist model imbedded in the system continues even now to hamper efforts at change. Everybody wants to share the cake, get a larger slice (at somebody else’s cost), but is not interested in making it larger. The failure of CM Kejriwal’s populist policies to prepare Delhi for the onset of the corona pandemic is a good example of how ineffective are measures such as free seats for women in buses. What use are these when buses can no longer run in the first place?
People make smart lifestyle decisions when asked to pay the true cost of services and goods. It may be noted that the daily fixation of fuel prices in India based on the market rather than government diktats has saved a lot of the nation’s money and helped reduce consumption. This has proved more effective than the subsidies that were provided to encourage use of greener technologies. Paying the real price of petrol and diesel has meant adoption of conservation measures and better technology, and made electric vehicles more attractive to the consumer. No amount of ‘awareness generation’ would have had such an effective impact.
Of course, it is possible that the state government might chicken out in the face of the pressure and withdraw its decision. That would be unfortunate, as it is an excellent means of influencing public behaviour that will result in a number of positive changes. People may take to riding bicycles, take up jobs closer to home, commute less, etc. In the long run, it will reduce the pressure on normally crowded bus services when fares are reduced post the pandemic. Making noise may help some politicians get votes, but it will not change things for the better.