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BW Businessworld

Time For India To Go Public!

The priority, going forward, has to focus on the woes of the hard working, white collared, tax-paying middle class already cash strapped by job losses and heavy pay cuts. They need to get back to work. Urgently. So that the economy can once again be kick-started. And a cycle of positivity can replace the current gloom

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With the easing up of Lockdowns worldwide to help revive country economys, the populace has to start moving out of the Work From Home (WFH) mode and gradually get back to their respective workplaces. The essential message of SMS – Social distancing, Masks and Sanitisation to curb the spread of coronavirus is firmly etched in minds of the people after so much of media exposure and constant hammering in social media. This has translated into an unprecedented distrust of the public transport systems and the fear of contracting the illness because of poor hygiene standards perceived by most. People are opting for private transportation with ‘better safe than sorry’ in mind. It essentially implies that those who cannot afford private vehicles will NOT travel! So if there is no mass movement of the middle class working individuals, how will the economy revive?!

We obviously do not want to face the same predicament as in Europe some three centuries ago when the amount of horse shit on the roads caused by the rise in the number of horse driven carriages became a deterrent to commuting and travel . The noise and air pollution as a fall out of the increasing number of vehicular traffic, is the present day equivalent of the horse shit. We cannot just sit with our eyes shut, wish for the invention of the steam engine which came to the rescue of the Europeans, heralding the Industrial Revolution in that far gone era. As the adage goes, ‘if wishes were horses…’. A diligent, vigilant and intelligent effort is required to revamp the entire public transportation, that too at a super urgent speed. Needed are visible confidence building measures (CBM) that signal safety to the public, and get them to start using these facilities again as of yore.

Buses are the mainstay of public transportation in majority of the cities in India. The hurriedly conceived plan of allowing only 20 passengers on board every bus is inadequate, and perhaps a little short sighted. There is a need for revamping the bus stands with recommended sanitisation and proper queuing. Next necessary step would be digital payment of the tickets/travel cards, separate entry and exit doors, preferably automatic doors, clear marking out of sitting and standing spaces, deep and frequent sanitisation of touch points like the handrails, well displayed instructions for movement within the buses. It would also mean change in the schedules of the buses from different bus stops for commencement and destination, as well as increased frequency to justifiably cater to all passengers on a particular route. These measures would have to be universally adopted for the public/private buses, shuttle services, school buses and smaller vans. It is a big ask, but do-able.

The Metro Rail forms the backbone of commuting in the bigger cities. New Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) need to be instituted to restart this mode of mass travel. The strategy has to begin with the Underground Stations having proper ventilation, the air conditioning to have recommended fresh air changes, temperatures maintained at 24- 27 degrees Celsius and relative humidity at 40-70%. The washrooms need to be paid special attention to with detailed supervised sanitisation, running water and optimum availability of soap dispensers. Facilities for disposal of soiled masks and touch-less procurement of fresh masks, if needed, would have to be instituted. The escalators and lifts would need frequent sanitisation of the railings and buttons with clearly depicted instructions to avoid overcrowding. The fare system has to be completely digitalised, the security checks automated, proper markings for queuing, earmarked spots for seating and standing, separate lanes for entry and exit into the coaches. Most importantly, all SOPs have to be meticulously followed day-after-day, and commuters have to follow all necessary instructions.
 To combat the fear of falling sick on the way maybe a paramedic can be stationed at Metro stations with a kiosk for checking some basic health parameters. A no -frills small pharmacy selling pre - tested good quality masks, gloves, foot covers, pocket hand sanitisers, few over - the - counter drugs would be a welcome addition to the stations. Big signboards prominently displaying helpline numbers and pictorial instructions for hygiene and sanitisation would help in disseminating health education. Dedicated ambulances for people - on - the - go, fully conversant with the Metro routes and layout of the  stations,  which can be easily summoned by the paramedic can be seriously considered.

There will have to be simultaneous cohesive strategies from the government and the private sector to stagger the office timings, follow the 25/25 rule of having only 25% of the workforce in office on any given day and all employees to attend office on at least 25% of the days, preferably putting in an extra couple of hours at work on the days that they are in office, and create last mile connectivity to even out the burden on the public transportation and make these measures viable.
The Cabs-for-Hire form a bridge between the private and public transport system. These have already starting instituting various precautionary measures like providing free PPE kits, sanitising material to the drivers, educating the drivers to wear face masks/face shields at all times when the passenger is in the cab, digital only mode of payment, touch less entry and exit from the doors as the drivers would have to open the doors and the luggage boots, sanitisation of the vehicle after every trip, a waterproof barrier between the driver and the passengers. Cab-pooling should be avoided for now. A step ahead, the cab aggregators have developed apps to monitor that the driver follows these instructions at all times.

Train journeys need a major overhaul with the same precautions to be adhered to. These become all the more important as the duration of contact of individuals in trains is much longer. Food service aboard trains will have to be done away with for the near future. The washrooms will need to be sanitised with ultra high frequency, the seating arrangements optimised, more number of bogies perhaps added, the health and safety of the porters handling the luggage addressed, and the Stations will have to be revamped with special emphasis on the vendors and waiting rooms.
Flights have their own unique problems with frequent advocation in media for keeping the middle seat empty which translates to the plane seating only 66% of its capacity. If the suggested two metres distance has to be maintained, then perhaps it means that only two passengers on the window seats in each row should actually be allowed, keeping alternate rows empty. Looks like then flights would run on less than 20% capacity. Add to these the ventilation and airflow dynamics which need to be altered, the protective gear needed for the staff and the passengers. Tough nut to crack, this one.

The effort needed is huge and the list of changes is endless. Essentially all these changes were much required and long overdue but perhaps it took the pandemic to wake us all up to these realities and now we need to implement them at hi-speed. Walking and cycling are excellent healthy options but the long distances to commute and largely the extreme weather conditions are not very conducive for either; therefore these do not make for viable alternatives. Most importantly, we need to stop taking pride in the misconception that a little bit of uncleanliness goes a long way in building our Indian immunity! We are far away from achieving herd immunity to the deadly virus. All of us cannot charter flights for over 10 lacs as for a family of four for a Delhi-Bhopal trip or be lucky to have airplane tickets sent by our employers (for coveted carpenters), all of which has been in the news recently. The priority, going forward, has to focus on the woes of the hard working, white collared, tax-paying middle class already cash strapped by job losses and heavy pay cuts. They need to get back to work. Urgently. So that the economy can once again be kick-started. And a cycle of positivity can replace the current gloom.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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jobs plan COVID-19 public sector

Dr Anurag Yadav

The author is a Consultant Radiologist at Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, New Delhi. She specialises in Cardiac Imaging. She is an inveterate traveller.

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