Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Of meter jams and other suchlike stuff

It's going to be interesting to see how Meter Jam plays out tomorrow and beyond. It's definitely an interesting social experiment - but I want to step back from it a little, look at the larger perspective. 

The passengers: After years of frustration at being refused fares, the entire movement is a emotional outburst that's been building up for a while. When you're struggling to reach somewhere, and the auto refuses your fare, it does feel like a slap in the face. I think this is the real reason, more than just inconvenience - it's the insult, the feeling of having to beg for service and being turned away. 

The autowallas: On the other hand, sometimes they do have their reasons. They're not necessarily valid, logical ones, but more around an instinctive reaction - short-distance fares will give more pain in terms of traffic negotiation, finding a return fare, etc. And if you have a rigged meter, you do make more profit on a longer distance. 

Unfortunately, it's short-sighted. By progressively riling up and angering customers, the autowallas have painted themselves into a corner from where it's going to be a tough task to get out - a situation where they've demonized themselves. Yes, I do agree it won't affect business - yet. For every 50,000 people who refuse to use an auto on one day, another 250,000 people will use one. That's just plain economics, demand and supply. But those 250,000 won't necessarily like it, either. They're swallowing their pride and shelling out their money. The feeling will remain, rankle. 

And in the long term, they'll think of other solutions. 
Carpooling is not an answer. We've all tried it and we know the painful logistics it involves, especially when travelling under deadlines. 
Lifts is not the answer. All it takes is one rape or molestation to end the concept, and you and I both know there's people out there for whom this is a heaven-sent opportunity; just stick a poster on the car and roam around, searching for prey. 
Posters is not the answer. A few cars smashed by union thugs, and the posters will vanish overnight. 

So what is the answer? 
It's beyond the obvious ones above. It's better finance schemes for buying motorbikes and cars. It's having a gym with a shower in the office so you can walk or cycle to work. It's gigantic parking becoming mandatory in malls and offices. It's the Sea Link. It's the Tata Nano. It's the realization that sometimes, whatever money you make is not worth the effort you put in and the sacrifices you have to make to get it - sacrifices of family, of leisure, of peace of mind. It's the reducing attractiveness of an office in the heart of the city where residential rent is unaffordable - so you choose the next best job offer, closer to home. It's decentralization, easing traffic pressure. It's decentralization beyond the city, reducing migrants. 

It's about... balance. The city was successful, so it attracted a population. That population is making the city unsuccessful. When the city fails, the population will depart. It's not pleasant, but it's life. 

That's why Meter Jam by itself won't work, even if it is ten times it's current size and lasts for a month at a stretch. It's unsustainable. It's fighting a system bigger than autowallas, bigger than unions, bigger than politics. It's fighting a natural outcome of a city's life-cycle. Everything you do - every solution - will only treat the symptoms, not cure the disease. The disease gets cured in a longer timeframe than most of our lives. So it doesn't make sense for us. So we treat the symptoms, with initiatives stretched out over years, while the disease cures itself over decades and centuries. 
But it is definitely a important event - it's the blinking red light on the health chart of the patient Mumbai. It may not do much, but it's telling us very, very clearly that things are wrong. Now we need to figure out how to fix them. 


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