It was an unusual meeting, and it began with a rather unusual presentation. Nearly 60 people had gathered for a Citizens Round Table organised on 25th September to discuss the problems of the Pune Municipal Transport (PMT) system. There was representation from a wide cross-section of the city: NGO representatives; transportation experts; architects and town planners; well wishers who don't use the PMT but would like to if it were better; media persons, and important sections of the city that regularly use the bus services, prominently among them students and representatives of a 40,000 strong organisation of domestic workers in the city. The last two constituencies are particularly dependant on public transport.

Other important participants were, of course, present: officials of the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) and members of the Pune Traffic and Transportation Forum (PTTF), which organised this round table.

The first presentation, immediately following the welcome and introductory remarks, dwelt in detail on the serious problems faced by the municipal transport service in the city. The fleet is only half the number of buses needed for a city of 30 lakh residents; it is old and aging rapidly; the buses themselves are in a pathetic state; there are not enough trained people; not enough bus depots or washing facilities; and the bus stops and bus stands are quite simply, bad. The presentation was well illustrated with images: no window panes in some buses; no seats in others; 200 buses that had to be left running even at terminating destinations because they had no starters, and evidence of the use, rather misuse of bus stops themselves. One had cows and goats taking shelter, another was blocked off by a garbage bin that was placed right 'there' and another that was being used by hawkers to park their hand carts and wares. Little of it was surprising, because this is the daily experience of the travelling public of Pune.

What was surprising, however, was that this was all being laid bare, not by a member of the PTTF, neither by NGO representatives nor any of the media persons present in the hall. This was a presentation by the man in the hot seat himself, General Manager of the PMT, Mr. Radheshyam Mopalwar. 'Talking the bull by the horns' was how he had titled his presentation, and in listing these problems, he seemed to be doing just that.

Such acknowledgement is valuable, and was immediately recognized and appreciated by the speakers who followed, including Dr. M V Bagade, senior transport expert and consultant with the Pune based Central Institute for Road Transport (CIRT). Now that we have accepted the problem and understood what it is, he explained, the next steps should be easier to take.

Pune's municipal transport system, like those in other cities, is groaning under the pressure of increasing populations, inadequate bus fleets and resources, increasing competition from private modes of transport, and neglect from the political and administrative machinery. There are exceptions, particularly Mumbai's Bombay Electric and Suburban Transport (BEST), which is reported to run with a reliability of more than 90%, and is invariably the one Pune's woes are contrasted with. The BEST, it is said, carries about 50% of Mumbai's total road users, yet occupies only 4% of the city's road space. Along with Mumbai's famed suburban railway service, the BEST is without doubt the lifeline of the megalopolis. Nearly 85% of Mumbai's commuters use public transport today, compared with only 35% in Pune.

Some statistics might be in place here to illustrate Pune's serious problems. Mumbai, the economic capital of the country has a population that is four times that of Pune, but Pune has more vehicles: about 14 lakhs as compared to 10-12 lakhs in Mumbai. "Please remember", pointed out Mopalwar, "Mumbai's BEST had a fleet of 1800 buses in 1971 when it had to cater to a population of 27 lakh people. Pune, today has roughly the same number of people [today as Mumbai did back then] but the PMT has only about 700 buses in running condition every day"

Though Pune is ideally located with a number of hills around and two rivers flowing through it, the state of the local environment is rather poor and getting worse. "A World Bank report in December 2003 labelled Pune the 5th most polluted city in Asia", pointed out Sujit Patwardhan, one of the co-founders of the PTTF. "65% of this pollution in Pune" he added, "is caused by vehicular emissions. This has also resulted in severe rise in health problems like asthma, hypertension, even cancer".

A large section of the city's absolutely population is dependant on the PMT. Also, what road space there is has been gobbled up by private transport; while the population has grown five times since 1960, the population of vehicles has increased by 87 times, and average travel times have doubled in the last year alone. The city has, at the same time, lost innumerable trees and footpaths to the large scale road widening that continues to assault it. The less said about the state (and fate) of cyclists and pedestrians the better.

The consensus that quickly emerged as the round table progressed was that the situation was bad, and one of the best ways out was to urgently revitalise the PMT. Revitalise it with resources, an augmented bus fleet, more political and administrative support and importantly, the goodwill, support and participation of the citizens of the city. This was also the point made by another of the speakers, Subodh Wagle of the NGO Prayas. "The fundamental reason for the situation being so bad " he pointed out, "was the lack of governance". There were three aspects that he elaborated on: no transparency; no people's participation, and no accountability of the decision makers.

Mumbai's BEST had a fleet of 1800 buses in 1971 when it had to cater to a population of 27 lakh people. Pune, today has roughly the same number of people [today as Mumbai did back then] but the PMT has only about 700 buses in running condition every day.

 •  Ahmedabad takes the bus

It was a point that was whole heartedly endorsed by Dr. Nitin Kareer, the municipal commissioner, when he took the floor for the last session. He began by acknowledging that the meeting was a special occasion, as a first step towards Citizen's participation in PMT management. While welcoming the participation, suggestions and contributions by all the participants, he promised that the PMT would add buses to its fleet as a priority. "We will reach the CIRT recommended proportion of 40 buses for 1 lakh population" he said and added "we shall try to do it within six months". One of the most important admissions he made was that shortage of money was not the principal issue. "We can find ways to raise it", he said.

If indeed this would happen, the face of public transport in Pune - actually of Pune itself - could change dramatically. From a present fleet of about 800 buses, the city could in a few months see this number doubling. It could mean transport that is better, cheaper, equitable and more comfortable. Just as important, it could mean a cleaner, less polluted city.

The proof of this pudding is in its eating, however, and only time will tell whether all this will actually happen. An active forum of concerned citizens and responsive and committed civil servants does however ensure that the prospects look brighter than they have in a long while. Maybe there is a lesson here for the other crumbling cities of the country as well…

Due credit must be given to the untiring efforts of the PTTF that made this process possible. An open forum and platform, it has laid down a nine-point agenda for the city and its transportation system. This includes among others, the creation of a vision for Pune's Traffic and Transportation that is sustainable, multifaceted, ecofriendly and equitable; giving priority to public transport; demanding financial viability, affordability and transparency; provisioning of non-motorised options like cycle tracks, pedestrian paths and vehicle free zones, and the creation of shopping areas and business districts that completely prohibit private motorized vehicles.

Trying to determine which of these is more important than the others would be a futile and unnecessary exercise; what is needed, as has been known all along, is an integrated approach. And the round table appeared to show some promise that this will actually result from citizens joining hands with administrators in planning. If improved as discussed, the PMT could signal a minor revolution in tackling the urban nightmare that has become so familiar everywhere.