There's a lot not to like about Blueline buses, but this week the government is picking on them for all the wrong reasons
One night in mid-September, Mrs. Batti and I emerged from the Habitat Centre and started walking toward the Jor Bagh Metro station. After a few minutes it began to rain lightly, and we realized we'd forgotten our umbrella. When a Blueline bus came lumbering up the road, we flagged it down.
Mrs. Batti does not care much for Blueline buses--they are frequently crowded and in the late evening hours, men often outnumber women by as much as 40 to 1. Still, that night was very nearly perfect: the conductor smiled and gave us his seat; the bus made good time; and combination of old Bollywood tunes blaring inside--and rain sparkled streets outside--was nothing short of magical. By the time we got down and began the 10 minute walk home to our flat, we really didn't mind getting drenched.
You won't find a Blueline lumbering up that road this week or next--the Delhi government does not deem them to be worthy of our new 'world class' image, so they've banned them from coming anywhere near Commonwealth Games venues. The government says they've put plenty of new DTC buses on the road, but the newspapers report the waits at Delhi bus stops are longer this week, and I believe them; on Friday at 8:15pm, I waited nearly 30 minutes for a 419--unusual for that route and time on the BRT--and when it arrived, it was almost impossible to squeeze on, and harder still to exit. What happens after the CWG is anyone's guess, but my bet is that the days of Bluelines in central and south Delhi are numbered. And I've got to say that a small part of me is going to miss them.
The great thing about Bluelines--in addition to their unique character--has been that in recent years when you really needed a bus, more often than not it was a Blueline that came along and rescued you. Maybe you'd have to step out in the middle of the road to flag it down; maybe you'd even have to run alongside to jump on board, but Bluelines have moved lakhs of people every day for years in Delhi, and you have to give them credit for that much at least.
Having given credit where credit is due, let's be clear about something else: Blueline buses were a bad idea from the start. Although I never liked the media's 'killer bus' campaign --it seemed to be too much of a 'call to riot'--there is no question that running a poorly regulated, for profit system alongside an underfunded public one was a recipe for disaster.
Safety has been the worst problem with Blueline fleet: in their drive to get more and more passengers, the drivers of these buses often go much too fast, and/or fail to stop properly while passengers get on and off. Of course, not all accidents are the result of rash driving; sometimes the buses can't stop in time because their breaks simply don't work due to poor maintenance. Our Delhi Struggle has an interesting analysis of the economics of Blueline safety problems, as does Rediff. But whatever the reasons, the results have often been horrifying.
Delhi Transport Corporation hasn't got nearly enough buses to move the number of people waiting at our bus stops. But Tehelka has also revealed that much of the Blueline buses' staying power has to do with the fact that some Blueline owners are very powerful and well connected. Many people think that after the Games, Blueline operators will be shifted to the city's 'fringes', where they will be less visible to tourists and rich people, and where safety isn't such a concern. In fact, this process is underway; the government has already begun issuing new permits for Blueline buses to operate on the edges of the city.
Yes there are many reasons to phase out the Blueline buses. But improving our 'image and look' for the Commonwealth Games is not one of them. A 'world class' bus system does not mean every bus must be sleek and new. Rather, it requires some practical things: safe buses, well trained drivers, room to breathe, reasonable commute times, and facilities for people with disabilities. There is room in a good public transportation system for some well-maintained old buses.
We aren't a rich country, and banishing poor people and old buses to far away places won't change that, just as 'view cutters' won't change the slums they are designed to hide. Delhi is a great city. It has a lot of real problems. Let's get to work on fixing those--for real--rather spending our energy on whitewash.