Thursday, June 23, 2011

We need big thinkers, but what do we have? Take the case of the Bombay cabs....

Cabbies in Bombay are going on a strike to protest many things. One, their licenses are not being renewed. Two, they want to convert their non-AC taxis to AC if a customer so desires and is willing to pay 10% extra and they are not being allowed to do so. Three, they want to be able to run any car model as a cab and lastly, they want more licenses for themselves rather than them being given away to fleet operators. In the past, they have complained about fare increases. The story of cabbies in Bombay – and in virtually every other city in India – is one of our authorities thinking extremely small. They simply cannot seem to think big. On the one hand, the PM talks of making Bombay into a Shanghai.....and on the other, our authorities simply cannot seem to be able to think beyond their small minds....

Look at the sorry state of the cabs in the financial capital. Most cabs are still those rickety Premier Padminis......which ordinary citizens like us stopped buying a decade or more back. The average age of the cab in Bombay is surely more than 10 years.....or at least it feels that way. The cabs are small in size.....and with growing economic and physical (!) prosperity; customers struggle to get inside them. Then, as everything else in India, the cabs are horribly dirty.....they are probably never cleaned from the inside; the upholstery never changed. They are a visual eyesore.....almost all of them have been dented at multiple places. And of course, the cabbies are a law unto themselves. The joke goes that the worst disciplined creature on the road is the cabbie in search of a customer....he will swerve left or right or suddenly come to a halt in a fast moving lane if he sees a potential customer. The next worst creature on the road is a cabbie who does have a customer in his cab! But as the saying goes, if you pay peanuts, you get monkies!

Rather than blame the cabbie, I would blame the authorities. In the last two decades, Bombayites (and residents of almost all big cities) have seen a huge improvement in their standards of living. The average income has gone up by some 8-10 times in this period of time. As a result, people are demanding better service and importantly, are willing to pay for them. The vehicles they buy for themselves reflect this fast changing economic reality. Today, even the most measly car is generations ahead of the Premier Padmini. Why would the government then not take bold steps to modernize the cab infrastructure? Why would they not mandate (not just allow) better models of vehicles to be run as cabs? If the customers are ready for a better experience, then why would the service provider not make those services available? Surely, there can be better cars mandated for cab services; surely the cabbies can charge more to recover the costs of running and maintaining a better, newer generation cab?

The problem comes in the lack of vision. Upgrading cabs would necessitate levying a higher tariff structure. Authorities fear (unnecessarily) that there may be a public backlash. To be sure, whenever a tariff increase has happened, a few people have protested. And media (as usual, looking for masala) has covered these protests quite prominently. As a result, cab tariffs in Bombay are pathetically low. Ten years back, the minimum fare used to be some Rs 7 or 8. Today, it’s doubled to Rs 13 or 15. Who amongst us has seen only a doubling of his/her salary in the last 10 years? Most of us have managed an 8-10 times increase in this period. Why then, should we complain about cab fares going up? What if the cab fares started at Rs 25.....but the cab was an air conditioned and clean sedan? It could be a small sized Indigo....or a larger Honda City. But if we were willing (or forced) to pay Rs 25 as the starting fare (and more for longer distances), then we could get a much better cab service in Bombay.

My point is that people are willing to pay the higher fares. At least in the major metros. That’s why so many customers are moving to fleet operators who provide air conditioned cabs and better drivers. The problem is that the government’s thinking is always small. They simply cannot think in terms of planning an upgrade appropriate with the progress made by the people of the city. They worry about fears that are non-existent. Some time back, I read a report that the government was thinking of converting the iconic black-and-yellow cab of Bombay (one that has featured in thousands of films over the decades) into a single color cab. Why? Not because of some new thinking on designs; but because it would be marginally cheaper to paint one color instead of two! Clearly, our authorities have fallen behind even while our people have surged ahead. But they don’t understand this. If they could mandate better cabs and higher fares, then the quality of life of cabbies also would improve. It would lead to better distribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. And if some people complained that cabs had become too expensive, they could always travel by bus or train. No one says traveling by cab is compulsory!

It goes back to my favorite crib that best professionals are no longer joining the government. If the cabinet secretary (the senior-most bureaucrat) makes less than Rs 1 lac a month (take home) after having cleared one of the toughest examinations in the world (the IAS exam) and after having put in 30 years of service, then who wants to join the government? (Well actually.....I think we are still lucky to have some really good bureaucrats in our country.....but their numbers are dropping). It’s the same with our political class.....none of the big thinking people professionals would ever win an election. The best people thus all work in the private sector or migrate abroad to greener pastures. With an intellectual shortage of this magnitude, what better can we expect from the authorities? Today, our bureaucrats simply don’t have the capability to plan big things. Besides, if there is someone who does think big, then the media, the CAG, the CVC, maybe the ordinary cop or the CBI or the ED or any of the tens of other “supervisory” bodies will make sure he falls in line. After all, thinking big involves taking risks....and does the political and media environment in our country allow the occasional failure that would come from thinking big? Does it allow big thinking at all? In reality, not only should it allow big thinking, it should encourage it.

The real truth is that thinking big is the biggest challenge facing the country. But for big thinking to happen, we need the best people to join the government. As happened at the time of independence. Just imagine if the current crop of politicians and bureaucrats were running the country at the time of independence.....we would not have had the Constitution; we would have split up into multiple nations and kingdoms......Today, our politicians and bureaucrats are experts at thinking small....many of them mistakenly believe that our society isn’t ready for big thinking. If our leaders and bureaucrats thought big, they would be surprised.....the people would reward them with their gratitude. We also need a more enabling environment. One that encourages big thinking and bold moves. One that condones the occasional (and almost certain) failure. We seem to put a premium only on fighting corruption. Fighting corruption is important.....but we must also fight small thinking. To help us achieve our rightful place in the sun, we need big anyone listening?

1 comment:

  1. Wow! The minimum in Cal is 22, and it's set to go up further.