Integrating India’s transport systems to build a robust multimodal network - Hindustan Times
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Integrating India’s transport systems to build a robust multimodal network

Feb 22, 2022 03:05 PM IST

India's transportation policy is fragmented. For a climate-smart transport plan, policymaking and planning should be unified, while operations are managed by different agencies

The Prime Minister (PM) Gati Shakti programme announced in Union Budget 2022 seeks to integrate modes and create a connected transport plan, which has the potential to transform India’s travel behaviour to a sustainable, cleaner, and more efficient one. 

Transport systems are critical for society. They facilitate access to jobs, health care and education. (File Photo) PREMIUM
Transport systems are critical for society. They facilitate access to jobs, health care and education. (File Photo)

Transport systems are critical for society. They facilitate access to jobs, health care and education. They enable goods to move from where they are produced to where they are consumed. In many ways, they are like the circulatory system of the human body — how smoothly the blood flows is an indicator of a person’s health. Similarly, how well the transport system functions is an indicator of the economic efficiency and the well-being of a country. 

Transport systems are of different types — road, rail, water, air. Each has its own unique applicability, carrying capacity, travel speed and cost. These systems are not necessarily interchangeable and must be applied in the right context. Whether it is passenger trips or goods trips, they often have individual ‘legs’ that are best served by different modes. For example, a consignment moving from a warehouse in Guwahati, Assam, to a warehouse in Panipat, Haryana –  a distance of over 2000 km ­— will involve legs from the warehouse to a railhead, then to another railhead closer to the destination and finally a leg from the destination railhead to the warehouse. Railhead to railhead can be best served by rail but the remaining two legs will mean road trips. Unless the transfer from railhead to a truck is smooth, transporters may just prefer the movement to be entirely from one warehouse to the other, by road. This is costly and polluting. It is for this reason that multi-modal integration is becoming increasingly important.

Unfortunately, transportation policy and planning in India is fragmented across five national ministries — the ministry of road transport and highways, the ministry of ports and shipping, the ministry of railways, the ministry of civil aviation, and the ministry of housing and urban affairs. Such fragmentation does not lend itself to integrated policymaking and planning for this sector.

To achieve an efficient multi-modal, climate-smart transport system mooted by the PM Gati Shakti programme, we must recognise that transport systems are different in their technologies and have differing levels of complexity in how they are operated and what skills they need. Therefore, safety regulations for them will have to be different. Yet, the service they provide is common regardless of their mode — that of transporting people and goods from one place to the other. 

It is hence important that policymaking and planning should be separated from the technical aspects of operations. While policymaking and planning need to be unified, operations have to be managed in different agencies. In fact, this is the practice in the United States, which has a single Department of Transportation but multiple ‘administrations’ (like Federal Highway Administration, Federal Transit Administration),  dealing with different modes. Even in the United Kingdom, there is a single Department of Transportation which is responsible for policy-making and planning, but there are separate agencies responsible for different modes of transport. 

India should restructure its transport planning along the same lines. Can a single ministry for transport, headed by a senior Cabinet minister take responsibility for policymaking and planning across all modes of transport? Under this ministry, there could be different boards for railway, roads,  maritime and aviation. The annual budget for this transport system could be finalised by the ministry of transport and submitted to the finance ministry for inclusion. Based on the allocations made, the ministry could sub-allocate to different boards. The advantage of this is that transport planning can then happen with a complete national system in mind and not in isolation for each mode. It would also ensure that certain inter-linking features like transfer terminals, logistics hubs, data systems, and so on, and not overlooked. 

Urban transport, which is limited to a certain geography, could follow a similar approach with a single agency being set up as the unified metropolitan transport authority, responsible for all modes of transport within that area. Different sub-systems like metro rail, buses, and paratransit could function under the control of this unified metropolitan transport authority so that good integration is ensured across all modes.

Such integration will go a long way even for meeting India's recent climate commitments. Transportation currently accounts for about 14% of energy-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and this share will increase over the years. As more people move to urban areas and increasing incomes make motorised modes more affordable, the share of emissions from the transport sector will grow. Integrated planning can help ensure that the emissions remain low. 

About 90% of the emissions currently come from road transport. This necessitates a shift away from road transport towards cleaner modes. This would mean that railway systems must improve themselves to attract traffic from the road. Unfortunately despite lower costs, rail systems suffer from the inability to provide door-to-door services, thereby deterring users. This can be corrected if transport planning cuts across modes. Similarly, global trends are leaning towards short-haul flights being replaced by faster rail services, which a less polluting. India can adopt a similar model for short-distance intercity travel but this requires planning across modes — which could be best managed if the system was part of a single ministry.

Fixing India’s transportation systems to be competitive in the global market will have multiple benefits — it will be more efficient financially and for operations, it will improve connectivity for commuters and offer economical and effective travel options for goods transport, while supporting India’s climate commitments. 

Dr OP Agarwal is CEO, World Resources Institute India

The views expressed are personal 

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