By Vidyadhar Date

4 January, 2013

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Rosa Parks, the young woman who refused to give her seat to a white man in a bus and sparked the civil rights movement in the days of segregation in the U.S. in 1955. Rosa becomes all the more relevant to us in the context of the recent rape of the girl in a Delhi bus and her murder .

Incidentally, resistance to injustice in public transport has triggered two epoch making, peaceful protests. The first was Mahatma Gandhi’s in protest against the humiliation he faced in the train in South Africa.

Rosa became a rallying figure in American history and went on to live for another 50 years after her act of resistance. The Delhi girl medical student became a victim at a young age but like Rosa she has triggered a mass moement.

The nationwide protests in India have focused mainly on the issue of rape. But these could as well extend to the arena of public transport because the girl’s rape and death are directly related to the inadequacy of public transport and the government’s abject failure to provide basic amenities to the masses.

Rosa Parks, a black woman, was sitting in the rear portion of the bus reserved for blacks. When a white man came in and the driver of the bus asked her to offer her seat to him, she refused. For this she was arrested . In protest there was a prolonged boycott of buses by the black community which led to the resistance movement of the black people. Her resistance was not an accident. She was for many years an activist in the movement for the rights of the exploited people.

The resistance movement in the U.S. is relevant to India particularly because public transport in the country is deteriorating even while the government slavishly and brazenly encourages motor cars in contempt of the national urban transport policy. The government does this by yielding to the pressure from the car lobby which sees India as a focus area as the market for cars is declining in the West. The State Bank of India routinely gives front page advertisements in leading English language dailies offering incentive loans to push the sale of motor cars. What a cruel irony that this is the priority area for India’s oldest and biggest and State-controlled bank. Has anyone ever seen a bank giving advertisements offering loans for buying bicycles ? There are countless who need these. But the banks want to bail out the automobile industry which is one of the biggest drivers of capitalism for decades.

It is not only in the raped girl’s death that the government has blood on its hand. It is the same story everywhere because of the government’s policy. Many people are now falling to death from overcrowded trains in Mumbai, the nation’s financial capital. So bad is the situation in the Mumbai suburban railway network that the Marathi daily Prahar, controlled by Maharashtra’s industries minister, described the Central Railway as the Murderous Railway (Khooni Madhya Railway) in the heading of an editorial on new year day. The minister Narayan Rane is a Congressman and an aspirant for the chief minister’s job. The bitter editorial is a reflection of the extreme anger among the people. It is only that people have not come out on the streets in Mumbai. The government is extraordinarily lucky that they have not.

Even the commissioner of railway safety (central circle), Mr Chetan Bakshi has admonished the authorities for the shoddy `modernization’ work in progress on the railway tracks. And even Mr Rakesh Saxena, managing director of Mumbai Rail Vikas Corporation, confesessed at the urban mobility conference in Delhi last month that the conditions in the suburban railway for passengers were inhuman. That was much before the recent public outrage.

India has the disgraceful record of accounting for the highest number of deaths in road crashes in the world. Most of the victims are poor people. So what does the government care ? The government routinely observes a road safety week annually in January as it is doing this week. That this is routine in the extreme can be seen from the fact that road fatalities are actually increasing by eight per cent every year, according to the government’s own figures. And the actual toll may be much higher if one sees how the police routinely refuse to register cases of road crashes unless the case is serious . There is collusion at every level. One senior surgeon in Mumbai had the temerity to enter the morgue of a public hospital recently and perform an operation on a body and tamper with the evidence of the accident. He was a complete outsider, he must have bribed someone and obviously, he was trying to protect someone. That is how deep the rot is. This means the poor not only lose life and limb their chances of getting any sort of justice, any compensation become extremely slim because of the callousness, or shall we say cruelty, of the authorities.

It is estimated that by the year 2030, the annual death toll on roads in India would rise to 260,000 . This would be equal to deaths caused by multiple plane crashes and terrorist attacks every month of the year. That is the magnitude. This is particularly unacceptable because Western governments have consistently brought down the number of deaths in their countries.

A report on road safety prepared by a committee headed by Prof Dinesh Mohan of IIT, Delhi, for the Planning Commission severely exposes several sectors. It says there is a total lack of commitment on the part of policy makers, designers, inventors, operators and researchers. There is too much emphasis on the engineering aspect and neglect of many other aspects. Safety is the first casualty of the PPP (public private participation) model. Yet, observers point out this model is trumpeted by the authorities day in and day out. It is a constant refrain in high level seminars. It is a fraud. A retired senior government servant remarked recently that PPP was actually an ATM (any time money) for politicians.

That the authorities have absolutely no regard for the basic rights and amenities for the people and are obsessed with elitist schemes for the benefit of the rich is clear from this example. The Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) has for its main priority currently a project to create a Formula 1 racing track on the outskirts of Mumbai and using hundreds of acres of precious land in the process. Of course, there is no demand from anyone for this utterly wasteful and unnecessary project. Such projects are increasingly coming under attack in the West. The authorities have the gall to claim in their website that this will help transform Mumbai into a major tourist and sports destination and enhance its global image. They should know that the country already has one and the new race track in Delhi has a poor record.

So let the poor fall from overcrowded trains and be run over by the cars of the arrogant, drunken rich but we will cater to the demands of the international car lobby and promote the cult of vehicular speed making it more difficult for people even to cross the road.

The venue of the launch of the road safety week in Mumbai on January 1 at Marine Drive in Mumbai seems like a cruel joke.It is the most unsafe place to reach on foot. Since this is a time for some reflection for politicians, the chief minister would do well to cross the road from Talk of the Town restaurant to Marine Drive without any escort and go incognito. True, there are good officers in the police but they are in a minority.

Coming back to Rosa Parks. She is one of the best inspirations in the present times particularly since women are now coming out into the open to reclaim their space, their rights. The American right wing tried to appropriate her legacy. When she died in 2005 , her body lay in state in the Rotunda of Capitol Hill. A critic bitterly noted that here lay in 1972 the body of J Edgar Hoover who had worked to destroy everything Rosa Parks stood for. For half a century, he waged a war against blacks, homosexuals and Communists. Similarly, vested interests will try to appropriate the raped medical student, the victim. They will try to deflect attention from the circumstances through some gestures which will be basically empty.

We do have an apartheid though it is of a different kind from the one that Rosa Parks fought. Delhi particularly is a stark example. It has the most naked disparities in transport. It has more cars than Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai totally have. So while the rich travel in air conditioned comfort and at breakneck speed in their cars on Delhi’s wide roads, young girls struggle to travel in constant dread in public transport buses. That is why the fighting spirit of Rosa Parks is relevant to us.

Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of the book Traffic in the era of climate change. Walking, cycling, public transport need priority. Email[email protected].