The right to mobility has implications for a person’s ability to access mobility services for basic necessities such as education, health and employment.

A small boy in a navy blue shirt looks out from the window of a red government bus.Image courtesy: Abhay K
Voices Right to mobility Tuesday, August 04, 2020 - 14:22

The coronavirus-induced pandemic has brought into sharp focus many issues plaguing our society. The large-scale movement of migrant workers along the highways of India during lockdown I reminded us not only of the presence and misery of such families in the urban workforce, but also of distances and the innate urge to rush back home despite distances. Limitations of each mode of public transport also became apparent. Air travel became expensive, not only in monetary terms but also as the most likely carrier of the infection from one country to another.

Within the country, city to city travel, city to village level travel became a challenge, not just due to travel restrictions but due to the sudden demand. Within the city, once the lockdown was relaxed, there was a huge spike in local travel, clogging road infrastructure. More people and families wanted to travel, but means of transport were limited. Large public transport, such as trains, buses and flights, became a necessity. Those who could afford shifted to private vehicles, leading to congestion and traffic jams.

People from lower income groups lost their jobs, either because public transport was non-existent or because they cannot afford a vehicle of their own. This is a fact that should not be lost on policy makers. On the other hand, expensive capital intensive city metro projects did not help as they are unsafe for a population that has become conscious of pandemic-friendly conditions.

Unfortunately, during the lockdown and after, governments in India continue to be obsessed with large infrastructure projects such as flyovers, widening roads, etc., without an assessment about how they lack sustainability and equity. Policy makers in India need to be aware that the project of Indian modernisation cannot be at the cost of exclusion of the majority. If we continue to ignore the necessity of responding to the transport needs of our large workforce, the economic consequences can be cascading, severe and detrimental on many fronts.

Environmental activists were happy that air pollution levels in most cities fell drastically, as the lockdown forced restrictions on vehicular movement. However, post-lockdown, cities like Hyderabad and Delhi have recorded a rise in dust particles and nitrogen dioxide. The decline in pollution was short-lived as more urban travellers shun public transport due to fear of the virus. Usage of personal transport has seen a massive increase, even as public transport continues to be shut. This is causing serious inconvenience to lakhs of small-time employees, vendors, entrepreneurs, office-goers, women, children, old and the infirm. Economic recovery at the individual level and national level is predicated on public transport – its access and affordability.

Why right to mobility is important

Human rights are about ensuring equitable access. As the economy grows, inclusion and opportunity become primary objective to ensure equity, equality and justice. Transport, more specifically public transport, is one requirement that enables inclusion and opportunity. Inadequate, inaccessible or unaffordable public transport creates barriers to employment.

The idea of mobility as a human right was and is likely to be synonymous with private transport. For decades, the car came first: what right does any government have to encroach on the freedom and autonomy of individual motorists? However, gradually there is a shift. Right of mobility is now seen as accessibility and affordability of public transport.

The right to mobility has to be an economic, social and cultural right to affordable and accessible public transport. It needs recognition by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

While public transport is an essential service for crores of people – whether or not they have a personal vehicle at home – it has not been treated as a priority by most governments across the world. In India, roads and transport infrastructure take priority because of their capital intensive potential. However, discussion on how this infrastructure impacts accessibility and affordability is completely missing in public discourse. Political parties completely bypass mentioning it.

Governments must uphold right to mobility

But what right do citizens have to access transportation? Do governments have a responsibility to step in and ensure alternative options when public transport is not available? There are many factors that determine what can be affordable and accessible transport, including traffic, congestion, type of vehicle, mass transit, cost of fuel, economy, urban planning and the environment. Although access to a bus itself isn’t a human right, recognition of such a right has implications for a person’s ability to access mobility services for basic necessities such as education, health and even jobs. It becomes the responsibility of the government to provide transport access to citizens.

Land use patterns contribute to the transportation divide. Employees prefer living in distant settlements, to reduce rent burdens. But they have to endure transport problems even as they are forced to seek employment in areas where mass transit systems are inadequate or nil. Household support staff such as domestic workers, security guards, lift operators, clerical staff cannot afford to reside near their workplace. Additionally, most fail to understand its importance to rural communities. Also, late-shift jobs play a crucial role for our nation. Yet many of these employees are also the segment of the population most at risk of being burdened by high transportation costs and reduced opportunities due to limited travel options at nights or late hours. Women are particularly vulnerable. Many women have been victims of violence because of this factor as well.

National and state governments, and local administrations have a responsibility to uphold their human rights obligations and ensure that public infrastructure is inclusive. This means looking seriously at public transportation across India, to ensure that everyone has access.

Governments spend huge funds to build and maintain highways. But once the highway is built, they have no way of measuring the degree to which it serves non-vehicle owners/drivers. Interestingly, even though ‘right of way’ bulldozes all other concerns, including environment and civil rights, it is not an inclusive right. If there is no bus/mass transit service on a highway (which was probably paved over fertile agricultural lands and/or private lands) and anybody who doesn’t have a car has to rely on other means to travel on that highway, how does it become a universal ‘right of way’? Critical decisions about transport policy are often made without the input of members of disadvantaged or under-served communities who most rely on public transport.

In a nutshell, the right to mobility is an aspiration that calls for greater spending on multimodal systems that foster comprehensive transportation networks that include pedestrians, bicycles, mass transit and automobiles.

Dr Narasimha Reddy Donthi is a public policy expert based in Hyderabad.

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