Towards Eco-Friendlier Public Transportation in India

By G. Venkatesh
November 2006

The Author is consulting editor for the „Minerals and Metals Review” and a freelance writer/editor for a few other magazines. He works as a Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute of Science and Technology, in Trondheim, Norway.

Compressed natural gas has come as a messiah just at the right time to redeem the lungs of Indians. It will be a few years before this can be embraced on a large scale by the public transport sector in India. Meanwhile, more can be done to make public transport „greener”, „cleaner” and eco-friendlier.

Considering the scores of forests that are felled annually to provide feed for the paper/pulp sector and therefrom, to the downstream end-users, and the concomitant negative fallouts like global warming and soil erosion, it becomes imperative to spare a thought for ways and means to reduce consumption of resources, optimize the use thereof, and extend their useful lives by reusing and recycling to the greatest extent and at the highest efficiency possible. While the recycling business has caught up with the First World (Singapore inclusive), in India for one, it is still teetering and it is a matter of time before the benefits of incorporating a well-structured recycling plan into the industrial economy will be availed of.

This Business Plan is centered in India, and focuses on the systematic collection and recycling of bus tickets that are sold everyday to passengers in metropolitan cities as well as small towns – both for intra-city and long-distance-inter-city commuting. In the longer run, the Business attempts to encompass both City Buses and the State Transport buses, in all the States of the country. In a nutshell, the Business would revolve around collecting bus tickets from passengers, and redirecting them to a central storage unit or units (near or at major bus depots in the city/town), and transporting the wastepaper therefrom to the nearest paper and pulp mills, which would use them as raw feed for paper-making. These mills, in turn, would also supply raw material to the ticket printing presses. A purchase-sale contract could be arrived at between the City Bus/State Bus transport authorities and the paper and pulp mills, through an Association of Paper and Pulp makers or local Industrial Associations, which would substitute a portion of the monetary transactions, by materials (waste paper for ticket-printing paper) exchange.

Here, the reader needs to be apprised of the large-scale dependence on public transport in a country like India, and the absence of such facilities as the EzLink Card, which makes travel convenient for passengers in Singapore. The passenger fare in big cities and towns is consistent and in fact at times, with more influx of people from villages into the cities in search of employment, this even increases. This leads to a rise in the public transport passenger traffic, and subsequently the printing and sale of more tickets by the year. (Public transport augurs well – when one considers that the air pollution is kept under control, what with the buses in cities like New Delhi being fitted with CNG engines over the last few years. A well-developed public transport system as one sees in many parts of India, is definitely an incentive for people to abstain from getting their private vehicles onto the road every now and then.)

That would form the backdrop of this Business Plan, which would take the name Project Nonagon – the name derived from the nine entities around which the business plan is structured. Before moving over to the distinct phases into which this plan can be organized, it would be worthwhile to dwell on the players involved in the plan, and the directions of cash and materials flow. Table 1 sums up the „constituents” of the plan, and provides a brief description of the roles each of these would be required to play.

Players and flows of money and materials

The Table is self-explanatory and so are the figures. However, it would be apt to have a „walk-through”. Venture capital for the Business could be sourced from the Ministries and Government agencies as also from the paper and pulp mills or associations thereof, which would be direct beneficiaries of the business plan. This could be released in lump-sum or in distinct chunks over a period of time, subject to performance evaluation and monitoring the degree of success of the business plan. Corporate giants may also be willing to sponsor the plan, as an exercise in image-enhancement or as part of their social commitments. A sponsorship would eliminate the concern for cash to carry out the operations entirely; but yet, this would be the best-case scenario, for which one cannot actually plan. If this happens, it would be manna from heaven!

Table 1:   Project Nonagon – the nine entities
Entity Description
1 Ministry of Transport; Ministry of Environment and Forests; Government agencies; City Municipalities Possible sponsors or Venture Capital providers Official permission of authorities herein is required to go ahead with the implementation of the plan
2 Paper and Pulp mills; Industrial Associations Beneficiaries Venture Capital providers and sponsors Buyers
3 Coach builders Cooperation sought Long-run installers of collection units within the buses
4 Media/ Printers/ Painters Awareness creation Small tasks assigned to sticker printers/painters (useful employment and some income for these specialists)
5 Steel mills/Plastics processors Suppliers of scrap metal/plastics for container fabrication Possibility of developing these units into contract fabricators
6 Drivers/ Conductors/ Ticket checkers Cooperation of bus operators is important Ticket checkers should be encouraged to check within the bus; and deposit the tickets he collects in the container Drivers and conductors can encourage the passengers by word-of-mouth from time to time
7 Passengers They are the core of the whole plan and sans their cooperation, it would never take off
8 Instrumentation companies Electronic digital weighing machines to be installed inside every collection unit for keeping track of tickets amassed; with possible recording facility of data on a daily basis for easy retrieval and monitoring Offer them a platform hereby for advertising their other products free-of-charge
9 Truckers These form the spine of the system, transporting the collected tickets to the paper and pulp units unfailingly

However, let us look at a more down-to-earth scenario. The venture capitalists may insist on getting their investments back, and one can safely assume that this being a worthy cause, the repayment interest rate would be much lower than in the case of most other business loans, with the possibility of a write-off of a portion of this, under special circumstances.

Revenue will thus filter in from various sources, as the project progresses, as a good mix of loans, sponsorships, donations, grants, et al, and will also filter out to the container suppliers (these could be steel mills or plastics processors who may recycle their home scrap into the fabrication of these container units, or contractors working in close coordination with these industries), the weighing units manufacturers, the media which would include the art agencies and printing units, which would contribute during the awareness creation phase of the project (dwelt on later in the plan). And yes, last but not the least, the transporters who would be responsible for carrying the waste tickets to the paper and pulp mills on a regular basis, will also be paid fixed monthly emoluments, calculated on the basis of the average distance the truckers would cover in a month. (Logistics calculations here would require a good understanding of the distances separating the collection centres – bus depots – and the paper and pulp mills, the diesel costs, and the expected fuel consumption).

Obstacles and Challenges

Imposing anything on the people, in a democracy like India, is sure to result in an uncontrollable backfire as well as open disobedience. It is well nigh impossible to introduce penalties to ensure that tickets are deposited promptly. However, relentless, incessant efforts at creating awareness and trying to win over the people – passengers in this case – may have a lasting positive impact. The said effort will utilize placards, posters and pamphlets to spread the message. This may call for some patience, but then that patience will pay rich dividends in the longer run and these will be of a more lasting nature.

Passengers apart, it is also vital to take the bus operators – drivers and conductors – into confidence, because, if they act dismissively, the callousness is bound to infect the passengers. The inertia and the resistance to change have to be crushed.

The paper and pulp mills, without whose cooperation, this plan would fall flat on its face, have to be coaxed to accept the waste tickets as part of their raw material mix. If alternate cheaper sources exist, it would require tremendous persistence to win over the paper and pulp mill owners to cooperate in the project. Further, the resources recovered here, cannot be used indefinitely. It is only a means of extending the lifetime of the resources. After a few cycles, the resources would have to fall out of the loop. But even then, the collected tickets of non-recyclable quality can well be incinerated and will thus result in power generation. If cities in India would set up incinerators (like the ones in Singapore) to convert wastes into usable electrical energy, the project company would find another customer – here, one has to remember that paper by far is among the richest Refuse-Derived Fuels, in terms of calorific value.

Unlike other businesses, where a market survey would enable reasonably accurate predictions to be made as regards the market, consumer tastes, and the existing demand, this plan would depend entirely on the predilection of the passengers, as here, they are not gaining in any way directly. Appreciation of indirect, long-term gains is extremely difficult to inculcate in minds conditioned to the fast pace of life in Indian cities. Thus, on-the-feet thinking and modification of plans and strategies will be called for, more so here, than in any other business.

That would bring us to the first phase of the plan – the Awareness Creation phase

Phase I – Awareness Creation

This is the most crucial phase – rather the make-or-break one; the one on which the very existence of the project would hinge. As mentioned earlier, sponsored hoardings paid for by environment-conscious companies, and corporate giants intent on image-building or fulfilling social commitments and thus reach out to people in the marketplace and strengthen their foothold, are a distinct possibility. It would require face-to-face interactions with the corporate communications departments of major companies operating in the region (city/town or State). Posters and stickers could be designed, the former meant for the walls along bus routes or bus-stops and the latter to be stuck behind the seats inside the buses and also on the window panes, in order to grab the attention of the passengers. This would involve tying up with art agencies that would need to be paid an amount of money for their services. (If not art agencies, there are many young freelancers who would be willing to do it at a lesser price.) Stickers would make more sense than painting behind the seats, as one generally finds in India, as this would not interfere with the operations of the buses. Much time would not be needed. Painting may be more time-consuming, even if the costs could be comparable, and would once again involve the deployment of toxic volatile organic compounds during the process. Eco-friendly stickers, without any toxic constituents, would avert this problem, and can also be recycled, either in the same paper and pulp mills, or in an incinerator for the generation of electrical energy. The design of the stickers and the structuring of the messages should be in stages, intended to motivate the viewer (the passenger in this case) slowly and lead him in the end to fully appreciate the scheme and offer his wholehearted cooperation to it. Haphazard handling of this phase would result in the plan being a non-starter; and hence, every move, every message and the timing thereof are important.

An interview with the Transport Commissioner or Cabinet Minister for Surface Transport, or the Cabinet Minister for Environment and Forests, or a request from any of them, addressed to the people of the city/town/State, arranged by the transport authorities, or a reputed PR agency in the city, can be published in all the major newspapers in the area (Here, once again, liaison with the editors of newspapers is essential – it will all boil down to making one and all realize how he/she can contribute in a significant way by supporting the project).

And yes, even when all this is being firmed up, circulars can be distributed with the daily newspaper (for this, one needs to befriend and seek the support of the newspaper boys in the area), inviting readers to respond at the e-mail address of the project company. This would literally be „driving home the message”. Comments and criticisms will be extremely useful in modifying and applying course corrections. There may have been a few things which one may have overlooked, and these may now surface thanks to the respondents on e-mail.

Collating the responses and gauging them will give an idea of the extent of acceptability and cooperation that one can expect. This would form the core of the performance report that the project company will submit to the venture capitalists and the other parties involved, while also publishing the same as a condensed report in newspapers. This process of providing information and inviting feedback and applying course corrections will be a continuous one, and thus the media will continue to play a key role throughout the project. After the repot submission and the meeting in which further course of action would be discussed, the second phase would commence. While the first one could ideally last for one month, the second one will extend to 3 months. These are cash-negative phases, during which money would be spent to set the ball rolling. Money would start rolling in a bit later; and the rise in income would ideally be exponential, during the initial phase before saturating at some point in time, necessitating expansions into other cities and States, banking on the success achieved in the first one.

Phase 2 – Pilot Phase

The second phase would commence with identifying the bus routes on which the trials would be run. These ideally would be the ones on which the greatest passengerfare is the highest. Having identified the bus routes, the next step would be to estimate the number of containers that would have to be installed, and thereby, the weighing machine units that would be required to be pressed into service. It is here that one will also decide whether to use a plastic container or a steel one – recall that both would be made from scrap. Reducing costs in the test phase would be logical, as plans would proceed from a worst-case scenario – preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.

These would then be installed onto buses preferably on a Sunday, when the frequency of buses operating would be lower and thereby there would be enough time to carry out the installation operations at the bus depots – which by the way would not take more than 15-20 minutes. Once this is done, information about these particular bus routes being the first ones to have buses equipped with the containers needs to be disseminated through suitable channels. A brief mention in the evening news on TV would certainly drive home the message.

The conductors in the buses will keep track of the number of tickets they sell, and by weighing the tickets collected everyday during this phase, a percentage collection can be determined, and a study of the changes in these percentages – increase or decrease – will give an idea of the degree of cooperation from passengers. Further, each weighing machine unit and each collection box for that matter, can be bar-coded (identifying the bus number) and this can be recorded on the final deposition, after the last trip for the day (or night). Thus one would be able to keep track of the collection on a daily basis. If certain buses consistently record a growth in percentage collections, the drivers and conductors on duty could be graded progressively and at the end of the three-months, awards could be given away to the best „performers”. Here, one assumes that the drivers and conductors would also play a key role in communicating the message to the passengers by word-of-mouth and requesting/goading them to cooperate.

If this is publicized in all bus depots, the drivers and conductors operating on other routes in the city will be automatically encouraged. At the end of three months, the project company would have a clear idea of the extent of progress. Graphs and data – numerical of course – thanks to the daily monitoring activities, would be there to present at the next meeting of the entities involved. If this is encouraging enough, one could suggest to the Government agencies, the possibility of commencing the awareness creation phase in a neighbouring city/town, even as the present project rolls on to the third phase.

Phase 3 – Expand and Embrace

In a matter of a month, buses plying within the city can be equipped with the containers; and the expenses thereof borne in one single payout – in case none comes forward to sponsor these costs!

In a big city in India, there are over a dozen big bus depots and some maintenance centres where the buses come to a halt at the end of a day’s trip. In addition to installing small containers within the individual buses, big ones serving as receptacles for the tickets from the smaller ones will also need to be constructed. In fact, the maintenance centres themselves could chip in with steel scrap for the fabrication of these container units, in case they would have such supply.

Once all the buses have been equipped with the ticket re-collection units, the print/audio-visual media chips in again with some information dissemination to the passengers. Even as the big units in the depots get filled (these would take a long time to get filled up to capacity; as generally one would go in for bigger ones), one could zero in on the trucker who gives the best offer. It is important to go in for a trucker who has an established business in the city, so that he would not rely much on the payments emanating from this project. At the same time, a well-established trucker may also demand a higher payment, as the payments accruing to him from this project would just be a small fraction of his income. The choice here would be vital, as one would look at a long-term relationship, and possibly some kind of a fixed contract which would ensure that the trucker does not demand a raise in payment, if the diesel prices shoot up (this has been a cause for concern in Indian cities during the last 3-4 years).

Once the containers are in place, the trucker/s have been assigned their jobs, the paper and pulp mills have guaranteed their cooperation as buyers of the waste paper tickets, and public awareness has picked up to a reasonably good extent, as evidenced by the test phase, the business will be on its way.

Till this point in time, it would have been a cash-negative affair. Hereafter, the gap between expenses and income would be slowly bridged, bringing in useful income which can either be reinvested into the business, part of it could be used to pay off the service providers, and possibly the loans which have been availed of, if any. Monitoring and recording progress, and resorting to „troubleshooting” measures whenever there is a drop in the percentage of tickets re-collected on any one route or area, would ensure that the revenue keeps rolling in.

Over a period of time, if the city decides to come up with an incinerator plant, which would also pay for refuse derived fuel delivered at its doorstep (as is the case for instance in Singapore), two distinct destinations would be in the picture. If the paper and pulp mills would not really need the waste paper tickets at any juncture, owing to overload of raw material, or fall in demand in the marketplace for their end-products, the tickets could be directed to the incinerator units. The initial infusion of venture capital needs to be used judiciously as it would take some time for the business to be on its own – in other words, to earn, and manage the operating costs, and possibly salaries for the lean-staffed outfit that would be handling the operations. Managing, coordinating, monitoring and communications would ideally be carried out part-time by people who would otherwise be gainfully employed; or for that matter by retired men/women who would like to supplement their pensions, with a little additional income.

Phase IV – Diversify

The beneficiaries of this project would be a vast multitude of people and organizations, which would widen in the years to come, encompassing many more towns, cities and States in the country. One can estimate the total weight of the tickets which are sold daily on buses plying all over the country. The calculation hereof would be interesting; and could be carried out as the business gets rolling. A small project conceived in a city in one corner of the country will develop over the longer run, into a nationwide business. The benefits…well…these would just go on and on; multiplying in a very welcome cascade.

From buses, gradually, one could extend the network to trains, cinema theatres et al, which will not be a problem once the project will have succeeded in covering the bus transportation sector, as planned.

Skeptics may observe silence

Too ambitious, some will say. Some others may even look down upon this as downright stupid. But people can say what they want to. There may be some who would consider this as a distinct possibility and even take the initiative.


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