Column: Sprightly Kerala

Updated: Mar 6 2014, 08:16am hrs
If nations were ranked by increase in the mobility of their population in the last couple of decades, India would possibly rank somewhere on the top. We built roads that improved mobility within and between cities during the late-1990s. These roads, though, were soon swamped with vehicles that polluted the atmosphere with soot, honks and abuses and reduced mobility. But, then came cheap air travel, followed by mobile phones and an ubiquitous Internet. Mobility improved dramatically. Indians now wade through jammed roads to board full flights and talk into their phones till the flight-attendants are driven crazy being polite.

Public investments in infrastructure, to support the potential for mobility, have been woefully short of the requirements. And, even in places where investments have been made they are often of dubious quality. Imagine a brand-new airport being flooded because of rainfall! And, a clean, efficient, superfast train connecting the airport to the heart of the city being forced to crawl at half its potential speed within months of its launch! Delhi offers you both.

But, Delhi is the most mobile state in the country. Its Indira Gandhi International airport is the busiest in the country with a traffic of 34 million passengers in 2012-13. Mumbai comes next with a traffic of 30 million passengers. The rest don't even have half this traffic. Delhi also has the highest teledensity91%, according to the Census 2011 data.

An appropriate measure of the air travel mobility of a region would be the number of air passengers per million population. However, the available statistics need to be used with some caveats as the mobility could be of outsiders into the region as tourists rather than the local population being mobile. For example, Andaman & Nicobar has a mobility of 1.3 million per million population and Goa has an even better 1.9 million air passengers per million population. The natives of the island would probably not be amused and the Goans may raise a toast to the business prospects of this traffic. But, both are not as mobile as the data suggests. At least not as mobile as is evident at international airports.

Typically, at a Western international airport, one sees people from West Bengal, Gujarat, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Bengalis and Gujaratis are probably the most tourism-oriented people among us. People from the South are more likely to be found as professionals working overseas, or their families visiting them. But, if you find an Indian gawking at the Colosseum in Rome, tiptoeing along aisles of the Louvre or screaming down those crazy rides in Disney World, she is likely to be a Bengali or a Gujarati.

Our air travel infrastructure seems to be favouring our business interests rather than our outbound tourists. It is possible that the Bengalis and Gujaratis travel from Delhi and Mumbai than from their respective states. Air passengers from West Bengal were 118,000 per million population and those from Gujarat were 85,000 per million population. In comparison, Maharashtra had a traffic of 304,000 per million population and Kerala was 285,000 per million. Even Jammu & Kashmir, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka had higher air passenger traffic compared to those from West Bengal and Gujarat.

If one were to somehow rank all states using a summary measure of the mobility of people, the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala would be close contenders for the top slots. Delhi would be high up, too. But then, Delhi is a small state.

Kerala's rail and road density is among the top-three state-wise figures in the country. Its air passenger traffic, at 285,000 per million population, is more than twice the all-India average of 130,000. It ranks sixth out of 23 states and union territories for which such data is available in this respect, but, the five that rank higher than Kerala include Andaman & Nicobar Islands, the city-states of Goa, Delhi and Chandigarh. The only large state that beats Kerala is therefore Maharashtra, that too because of Mumbai.

Kerala has a teledensity of 96%. This is much higher than the all-India figure of 73%. The state ranks fifth in teledensity. Kerala's high ranks in rail and road density, in air traffic and in teledensity makes it the contender for the most mobile state in the country. This statistical nugget sits well with the image of the hardworking, global Malayali who decides to hang her boots in God's Own Country, but possibly keeps working her phone. Its not an idle connection with the average Malayali in Kerala. The state ranks third among all states in terms of average revenue per user.

Tamil Nadu ranks second in terms of teledensity after Delhi. So, among the large states, Tamil Nadu is the top ranker in terms of teledensity. The good quality of its roads offsets partly its not-so-impressive surface transport density. And, its air traffic is also quite impressive at 227,000 per million population compared to the all-India average of 130,000 per million population.

Both these southern states fare much better on mobility statistics compared to the more famous Gujarat or the more touristy Gujarat and West Bengal. Gujarat's passenger air traffic, at 85,000 per million population, is lower than the all-India average, and it is ranked 14th in the list of 23 big states. West Bengal ranks 12th. Gujarat ranks 8th in a list of 18 states in teledensity, while West Bengal ranks 12th, again.

Inter-state comparisons are often dicey. And, comparing mobility across states is a complicated affair. Different modes of transport compete, terrains differ and mere mobility may also be a reflection of poor spatial planning. Independent of how the states stack up on these rankings, there is no doubt that there has been an all-round improvement in transport facilities and therefore of the mobility of Indians. But, this is far from enough to improve the quality of life.

Perhaps, there is one facility for mobility that greatly reflects the quality of public infrastructure and even the quality of life in a city better than anything else. This is the length of sidewalks in a city. We have a new facility in the urban maze of some citiesthe skywalk! I find these to be ugly, clunky structures that only further mar the breathing spaces, adding to the space for screaming hoardings in a city. But, that is a different issue. What is pertinent is that it is difficult to find sidewalks in most cities. It is challenging to cross a street unless you are willing to be a nonchalant jaywalker, ears plugged firmly into your mobile phone, scowling menacingly at any vehicle that dares to cross your path and disturb your musical escapade. Mobility has moved far ahead of civility. Good sidewalks and other facilities for easier pedestrian mobility on streets could help correct that to some extent.

All data sourced from statesofindia.cmie.com

Mahesh Vyas

The author is CEO and managing director, Centre for Monitoring

Indian Economy P Ltd