The Blue Line Bus Saga: Aman Trust
The article is based on AMAN Trust‘s research on informal labour in Delhi.
Sent by Jamal Kidwai
The Delhi government has announced a phasing out of nearly 3000 blue line buses from the streets of Delhi in the next few months. These buses will be replaced by nearly new 1000 low floor buses purchased to ferry athletes and dignitaries for the Commonwealth games. According to the Delhi Transport minister Arvinder Singh Lovely the phase out will be enforced under section 115 of the Central Motor Vehicle Act that deals with the emission norms. The decision has been taken even despite a petition pending in the Delhi High court regarding the decision to phase out 600 routes. According to Lovely “We will apprise the High Court about the decision and I am confident that the court will accept our proposal.”
The Delhi government is proudly patting its back and portraying this as a big step forward to make Delhi streets safe for its commuters and public. It is a fact that blue line buses kill more than hundred people every year and the drivers and conductors misbehave with public. There is certainly an element of truth in this perception. However the government has conveniently absolved its own agencies like the police and road transport authorities of the rampant corruption and its own complicity in creating and sustaining the crisis of public transport in Delhi.
This article on Blue Lines buses is based on series of studies carried out by us on the labouring conditions of informal labour in Delhi over last several year. Kafila had earlier published an article Auto-rickshaws in Delhi: Why Sheila Dikshit’s Comments are Misguided that demonstrated how the auto rickshaw drivers are exploited by the finance and police mafia.
Our study found that the biggest beneficiaries of the blue line bus economy are the bus owners who sublet their buses to contractors and government officials like the traffic police and transport authorities who are supposed to regulate the operation of the buses. The former gain by exploiting the bus drivers and conductors, who work on below-substance wages and in terrible working conditions without any job security. While government officials exploit the loopholes in the regulations to earn large scale bribes from the operators and the drivers and conductors.
The biggest losers however, are the passengers who face inconvenience and risk while traveling, followed by the bus drivers and conductors who are paid below subsistence wages. Most at risk are those who commute on Delhi roads by cycle, two wheelers and pedestrians. They are the biggest victims of rash driving.
In a study of 105 heavy and light weight vehicles operating as public transportation (Blue Line buses and RTV) it was found that these vehicles are owned by around 50 people, who employ approximately 500 drivers and conductors to run the buses. To ply a bus as public transport, a permit from the State Transport Authority (hereafter STA) is required. In theory this decided by the drawing of lots. The winners have to pay an annual fee of a mere Rs 1100/- to renew the permit. However, the allotment of permits via lotteries leaves ample room for corruption.
According to estimates gathered from our interviews, informal payments allegedly made to police and transport authority officials by drivers and conductors of one bus is in the vicinity of Rs 2000/- per month, or Rs 24,000/-annually. The policemen come to a specific point once every month to collect the money. On a question related to the procedure of informal payment to police, contractor Sayuddin said “We do not need to go police station to make the payment, the policemen come to a designated point at the beginning of every month to collect the payment. If we do not provide monthly informal payment to the police, then they find an excuse for a penalty. So it is better that we make the payment on time to minimize the chances of being penalized.” Apart from this, the owner makes further informal payments to the STA for permits, fitness certificates and other qualifications.
On the basis of these figures we can make a rough monthly and yearly estimate of the total informal payment allegedly made by drivers and conductors to the police and municipal authorities alone. There are approximately eight thousand heavy and light weight private public transport (road) vehicles plying in Delhi. These include blue line buses and RTVs. If each vehicle yields Rs 24,000/- a year, 8000 vehicles must contribute Rs 19.2 crores annually, and this payment is separate from those made to the STA.
To understand the informal economy of the transport sector better, it is imperative to read the above figures with those that reflect the material conditions of the owners, contractors and drivers and conductors. Thus, depending on the condition of the vehicle and the route it plies on, an owner of a bus sublets it to a contractor for a daily rent ranging from Rs 1200-2000. A contractor in turn sublets the bus to drivers and conductors for Rs 1400-2200, on a daily profit of Rs 200. Occasionally the contractors themselves could be drivers (or conductors). The logistics of sub-contracting depends largely on the status, rapport and the influence of the owner and the dependability of drivers and conductors. So if a person owns a bus s/he could earn between Rs 36,000/- to Rs 54,000/- per month or Rs 4,32000/- to Rs 6,48,000/- annually depending on the vehicle’s condition. These figures take into account the approximate amount that the owner must spend on repairs and maintenance.
Drivers work for ten to twelve hours a day and earn between Rs 200-250. Similarly a conductor earns Rs 100-150 a day. This earning is over and above the informal payments they make to the police and the STA. Hence drivers and conductors earn around Rs 4000-5000 and Rs 2500-3000 respectively per month. They are allowed about five days unpaid leave in a month. As their incomes depend upon the number of passengers they pick up, they invariably work extra hours and compete with each other by over-speeding, overloading and disobeying traffic rules such as lane-driving and red lights.
The above system of wage payment and rent and the subsequent generation of an informal economy raises questions concerning the links between the subtraction of wages, state regulation and poverty. In the hierarchy of any production or service process the workers are the most vulnerable and among the workers, those with limited or no skills are even more so. In the above case it is the drivers and conductors who are the most exploited. The violation of traffic safety is necessitated by the low and piece-rated remuneration of the operatives; and this violation is overlooked by the police in return for a bribe. (Even larger unavoidable criminal cases in the transport business are settled via impersonation and bribery). According to a conductor Qutubuddin, “In case of accident all the expenses related to bribes and bail for the release of the driver from police are borne by the owner”. Last year an accident took place at New Friends Colony in which two people died. The driver fled from the scene of the accident. The owner persuaded another driver named Bahadur to produce himself in the court as a driver of the bus by which accident took place. Bahadur agreed to do that after he was assured Rs 40,000 as incentive by the owner.
The need to bribe the constabulary further depresses the workers’ earnings, motivating them to drive even more rashly. Wage rates are (at least in part) kept at low levels on account of the payments that contractors and owners need to pay to the official regulators. The entire system is kept afloat by lax regulation and piece-rates. This particular labour-process causes excessive stress and substance abuse by workers, along with one of the highest rates of traffic accidents in the country. It also yields an informally augmented income for the hierarchy of state and elected officials.
According to the Economic Survey of Delhi 1997, buses are the most popular means of transport catering to about 60% of Delhi’s total demand. According to the same survey less than 30 % of Delhi population commutes by private vehicles. You just need to do a visual survey of buses in Delhi to realize how overcrowded they are. Does it not it make sense that instead of replacing blue line with government run vehicles, add the later to the existing blue line fleet so that bus travel for the 60 % people of Delhi becomes a little less harrowing. Such a decision will of course make the Delhi roads more congested and 30 % car owners will complain the hours they have to spend in long traffic jams. What needs to be addressed, instead, is the entire ‘informal’ arrangement, through which practices of bribery and corruption perpetuate these constant and fatal threats.