Thursday, 28 October 2010

Killer Buses or Killer Drivers?

So the Delhi government is going to phase out the notorious Blueline buses from 14 December. It is, we are told, a step towards improving the safety of Delhi-ites.
Delhi's transport minister Arvinder Singh Lovely was quoted in the Hindustan Times as saying "I cannot leave the residents of Delhi at the mercy of the Blueline bus drivers." In The Times of India he pointed out that the Blueline buses had been off the roads in most of Delhi during the Commonwealth Games but within days of their resuming service, one person had been killed by a Blueline.
I contest this belief that removing Blueline buses from Delhi's roads will reduce fatal road accidents by bus drivers.  In fact, I find this line of reasoning quite, quite ridiculous.
Are these buses on autopilot which malfunction and leads to them running amok on Delhi roads and killing people? Obviously not. The buses are driven rashly by drivers. Take Bluelines off the roads and these drivers, who will be jobless, will get employment driving some other kind of bus or alternative to the Blueline or some commercial vehicle. What is the guarantee that they will not drive rashly then? (I blame my profession, the media, for some of this facile conclusions. In their search for catchy titles, they end up making non-issues the central issue. Killer Bluelines. Killer BMWs. But never killer bus drivers, killer rich brats). Wouldn't Delhi roads be safer by not allowing such killers to drive, rather than removing buses (which can't move on their own) from the roads? Or suspending the permits of the owners of these buses? But these are politically difficult steps, since the bus owners have enormous clout - political and monetary - and can bail themselves and their drivers out of any problem. So do the easiest - and most foolish thing - take buses off.
We've already had experience of the futility of these kind of bans. First there were Redline buses introduced in 1992 when DTC drivers went on strike and the government decided to bring in private operators. These buses were also death on wheels - they notched up a huge number of accidents. According to Hindustan Times, in one year alone they killed 300 persons. The next year, the Redlines were taken off the roads. Then Blueline buses were introduced. And the killer story was being repeated.
So clearly taking one set off buses off the roads did not help. And it will not help even now.
Unless you change the people driving these buses. The same drivers were driving these buses. And under the same system of operation. The Blueline buses are not under the DTC but get permits from the Transport Department to ply on certain designated routes. I am not clear what the business model is, but the owners want to do the maximum number of trips and so drivers are under pressure because of which they drive rashly (I am not justifying or rationalising their behaviour, merely identifying the root cause).
Has thought been given to this when working out an alternative to Bluelines? I suspect not.
There are alternative that people talk about - a corporatised private bus fleet, a revival of the km scheme (the DTC used to have a scheme long before Redlines were first introduced under which privately-owned buses were driven by an employee of the bus owner but had DTC conductors who gave out DTC tickets. The bus owners were paid on the basis of km and the age of the bus. But this too had its share of problems.)
If the alternative arrangements are going to be just another variation of the current system, then we will have killer drivers - I will not use the term killer buses - back on Delhi's roads.

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