A quiet revolution

A quiet revolution
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First Published: Fri, Dec 10 2010. 12 00 AM IST
Updated: Fri, Dec 10 2010. 12 01 AM IST
The Ashok Nagar police station in Bangalore is an unlikely place for a revolution to take root. It is in the heart of the city, sandwiched between two teeming malls, on a short stretch of road that is nightmarishly busy. The sprawling compound is littered with junked motorcycles and cars, and a lone constable stands guard with an antiquated SMLE .303 rifle.
Yet it is from here that a quiet revolution in urban traffic management and planning has begun. Of Bangalore’s 380 traffic junctions, 180 are now fitted with 360-degree dome cameras. Each of these can be controlled remotely, has a line of sight of 1km, sports night vision, and is weatherproof. The cameras are hard-wired to the Ashok Nagar servers using fiber optic lines. A “cockpit” of LCD screens at the police station’s command centre shows junctions categorized into zones. Constables assigned to each of these zones can read number plates to assign penalty tickets to vehicles that violate rules. Back-end processes integrated with the transport department data print and mail violation letters with links to photographic evidence.
These remotely manoeuvrable cameras at major traffic junctions form one leg of a vast new information network. The second leg is a parsed cellphone tower information that generates a teledensity “heat-map” of traffic movement in the city. The third comes from city buses fitted with GPS devices that indicate speed and congestion on arterial roads. These three sources together create an integrated view of live traffic conditions in the city. Rs50 crore in traffic penalties generated in one year pays for the initial investment, and more.
Ashwin Mahesh, the man behind this transformation, is an unassuming, gentle sort with a doctorate in atmospheric remote sensing. “Traffic is a crowd-sourcing problem,” says Mahesh, “informed participants on the demand side matter as much as the supply side.” Mahesh stumbled on to the traffic solution a few years ago when reading an article on mobile telecom data being useful for approximating volumes of traffic on the ground. As the idea took shape, then additional commissioner of police (traffic) M.N. Reddi, and Deepak Mehrotra of Bharti Airtel also pitched in. This motley crew went about putting the plan in action.
Their good work has been continued by ACP Praveen Sood, the man now in charge of the system. Continuity of thought is important in institutionalizing any solution, and Sood has not only adopted the original idea, but has also nurtured it by putting in new systems, including a BlackBerry handset with a consolidated view of each vehicle’s record for every traffic policeman. “Due to the combination of integrated information and better enforcement, we have a 30% decline in fatalities from 1,000 per year a few years ago to 700 now,” says Sood.
Mahesh is clear about why the system works. “It is a PPP (public-private partnership) of a different kind—the ‘private’ here is not coming from business interest. Instead, it comes from a research focus, an interest in working on social problems, and the willingness to donate intellectual capital to public efforts for public good. By eliminating the cost of our support, we were able to work with the government much closer than we would ever have as ‘contractors’. I think it is a much better model - something our ministries should support through the universities and social labs everywhere. This is how it works all around the world, but not until now in India.” The idea has already been ported to several other cities in India. Chennai, Pune, Vadodara and Indore have put similar systems in place.
That’s a good sign, because the PPP philosophy in India has largely been limited to large-scale infrastructure projects with capital challenges—roads, dams, ports and so on. But there are many bite-sized, doable projects, where a creative synthesis of talent and a small amount of capital can achieve outsized results, as the Bangalore Traffic Management Centre demonstrates. Critical to the success of these ventures is outside talent that can not only galvanize a solution, but also leave the government with greater capacity and ownership after the project is complete.
With news from the Commonwealth Games scam and the dubious 2G auction dominating airwaves, it is easy to be cynical. But there are a handful of significant but quiet successes in the public/private space. Like-minded groups of citizens with talent, capital and resources can find ways to improve the “commons”. The government needs to be able to access talent, particularly of a type that is multidisciplinary. So the next time your car stops on the zebra crossing at a traffic junction in Bangalore, remember to pull back. A traffic ticket will otherwise find its way to you.
P.S. Imagine a virus that would spread good things in an organization —not the famous Trojan horse, but instead Aeneas, the self-less hero of Virgil’s Aeneid, and the legendary Trojan believed to have germinated Roman civilization.
Narayan Ramachandran is an investor and entrepreneur based in Bangalore. He writes on the interaction between society, government and markets. Comments are welcome at narayan@livemint.com
To read Narayan Ramachandran’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/avisiblehand
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First Published: Fri, Dec 10 2010. 12 00 AM IST
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