Anger builds over Delhi’s ‘killer buses’
Five-year-old Khushi Kumari was heading home from school last week with her sister Radha when a speeding Blueline bus veered toward them at the side of the road.
Witnesses said Radha was hit from behind and knocked into the air by the commuter bus. But Khushi was crushed under its giant tires. She died almost instantly.
“That day it was the turn of my Khushi; tomorrow it could be anybody, it could be me, you or who knows who,” said their mother, Suman Kumari, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Don’t they have families and children? How would they feel if their children were crushed under the wheel of an over-speeding bus?”
Khushi’s death Dec. 17 made headlines here, but she was not the only child to be killed by the privately run commuter buses last week. The day before, a 3-year-old boy was run over while crossing a street with his father, one of nearly a dozen people killed over the last two weeks.
This year-end spate of accidents has pushed the total deaths attributed to the Blueline buses -- many of them old, rickety vehicles that make up more than half of the municipal commuter bus fleet -- to 121 this year, according to a tally kept by local news media. That is an average of more than two a week, and is just below last year’s total of 131.
Death by what many have dubbed “killer buses” -- pedestrians run over, cyclists pulled under, patrons falling out of moving buses into traffic -- have been the curse of Delhi’s streets for years. But it also was a problem that was supposed to have been on its way toward a remedy.
After a series of Blueline deaths a year and a half ago, the Delhi government’s chief minister, Sheila Dikshit, vowed to phase out all the estimated 4,000 Bluelines that crisscross the Indian capital.
Under Dikshit’s plan, the buses’ licenses would not be renewed and larger companies would be invited to bid for multiroute contracts. The city would be divided into 16 “clusters,” each run by a single operator that could be better regulated by the government.
But so far, no contracts have been tendered, and none of the old Bluelines -- many of which have broken windows, rusting frames and exposed light bulbs dangling from their ceilings -- has been replaced. Critics are skeptical that they ever will be.
“I don’t think the government has done anything about it,” said Sanjay Kaul, head of People’s Action, an advocacy group that organized the families of Blueline victims last year. “If they were serious about it, they could do it.”
Dikshit’s government, which was reelected this month, has in recent days renewed its promise to replace the buses and vowed to speed the process of phasing out the fleet. After much delay, the winner of the first corporate contract is scheduled to be named Jan. 16.
On Friday, amid public outcry after the death of a motorist the day before, the Delhi government impounded more than 150 buses, some of which officials said were operating without a permit, news media reported. Licenses for the others were canceled.
The new Delhi transportation secretary, Arvinder Singh Lovely, declined a request for an interview. But defenders of the government said officials have faced daunting hurdles, including long-term contracts with the current operators, many of whom are influential small-business owners whose buses are their sole source of income.
“These guys are ordinary middle-class guys,” said Dinesh Mohan, a transportation expert at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi. “Most of them are not that well off and they’ll fight to the end.”
The government is not the only one facing difficult circumstances. One ride on a Blueline bus during rush hour reveals that the much-maligned drivers face an obstacle course unlike those faced by counterparts elsewhere. The city’s streets narrow and widen almost at random amid myriad construction projects, sending the ever-growing number of cars (which treat lane dividers as little more than suggestions) darting from one side to the other, frequently swooping in front of the rattling buses with no warning.
On top of that comes a panoply of smaller modes of transportation; scooters, motorcycles, three-wheeled tuck-tucks, carts pulled by bicycle and even, as the No. 73 bus crossed a Yamuna River bridge one recent evening, two colorfully decorated elephants, all sharing the same roads.
Smaller vehicles regularly brush up against the rumbling buses, each of which has about 25 two-person seats, with seemingly no regard for their own safety.
At the same time, the bus drivers are prone to heart-stopping maneuvers, like changing lanes abruptly and barreling into oncoming traffic with the assumption that smaller vehicles will give way.
Some buses barely slow down when they approach stops, many of which are five or six deep with patrons waiting to board, forcing dozens of commuters to chase after them in a desperate attempt to jump through the door.
The drivers themselves are only partially to blame, however, transportation experts say. The private bus system is structured in a way that perversely provides incentives for drivers to speed through the chaotic streets, they say.
With overlapping routes and 3,000 city-owned buses plying the same streets -- as well as 10,000 buses chartered by large companies that provide transportation for their own employees -- Blueline bus drivers frequently are forced to race each other to gather customers, packing their bus to overflowing to generate as many fares as possible.
Regulations to prevent such recklessness exist, but critics like Kaul say they are rarely enforced. Even with the existing system, Kaul said, small modifications such as hydraulic doors to prevent riders from falling out and re-licensing all drivers through an independent organization such as India’s Automobile Assn. would cut accidents dramatically.
But experts like Mohan see more intractable problems. About a third of New Delhi residents cannot afford even the fare of 1 rupee per kilometer, with a 3-rupee minimum, which amounts to about 3 cents a mile.
Fares must remain low to keep the buses affordable, but they also generate little income, making each bus only marginally profitable. As a result, even new, larger operators will have trouble justifying expenditures on fleets of modern buses like those that ply the streets of Beijing.
Even if new, modern buses run by large companies replace the Bluelines, they will be sharing the jammed streets with pedestrians, cyclists and elephants.
“The problem is not just who owns the buses,” Mohan said. “As long as pedestrians don’t have a space, they will be on the same road. It’s just not that simple to fix it.”
Even if the Delhi government figures out a way to fix the Blueline problem in the next year, it will be too late for Suman Kumari and her husband, Pramod, a fruit-seller in Delhi’s upscale Connaught Place commercial district. Not only did they lose Khushi in last week’s accident, but their other daughter, Radha, suffered a head injury and her prognosis is uncertain.
“Out of our three kids, [Pramod] loved Khushi the most,” Suman Kumari said. “He doesn’t feel like going back to work, but has to go because he is the only earning member of our family and still we have two kids to look after. So we try to console each other.”
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