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Home > Business > Columnists > Guest Column > Sunil Sethi

Delhi's Transports of Horror

July 14, 2007

Echoing the public's anger and distrust of dangerous buses, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit's comment that she would rather walk than take a Blueline bus is all of a piece with what the notorious French queen said about people eating cake if they couldn't get bread.

It is the sort of silly, self-serving remark or gesture that politicians are given to making as an expression of solidarity with public disquiet, like Mrs Gandhi going to office in a horse-drawn buggy during the oil crisis of the early 1970s or Orissa Chief Minister Biju Patnaik riding a bicycle to work in Bhubaneshwar.

Far from appearing sympathetic, such actions no longer seem funny and it's doubtful if they wash with Delhi's well-informed 21st century voters, who have a good idea of what's going on. When did Sheila Dikshit actually have to use a bus or any form of public transport, they might ask.

And would her discomfort or frustration be any less if she had to walk miles in the sweltering heat, with humidity running at 85 per cent and punctuated with sudden downpours? Or was her remark aimed at needling Delhi's Transport Minister Haroon Yusuf in a cynical show of political onemanship?

Facts first: Thousands of commuters in the capital have been left high and dry ever since more than 600 Blueline buses, run by private operators, were impounded because of an alarming rise in accidents. At least 15 people died, several of them children, and about 70 seriously injured in the past six months.

The Delhi government's transport department issued about 4,500 permits to Blueline operators, but, in fact, anywhere between 5,000 and 5,500 buses were on the roads - clearly the routes were being milked with more buses than permits.

Most Bluelines are appallingly maintained - faulty brakes and no speed governors - and many of their drivers possess forged licences or none at all. Some are virtually illiterate without the mandatory Class X school certificate required by the Delhi Transport Corporation. A few were actually found to be drunk on duty.

Dikshit and Yusuf, who are now engaged in sidelong sniping, know the facts and cannot be unaware of the scale of the public transport crisis. Forged licences, unlettered yokels for drivers and more buses than permits issued - it all adds up to unchecked bribery and corruption in the transport department and the traffic police.

Yet no one took much notice till the cases of death-by-accident shot up and the killer Bluelines began to be pilloried as "Bloodlines". And were it not for the public outcry and the High Court, which ordered the Bluelines off the city's blood-spattered roads, nothing would have happened.

Unlike other parts of urban India, Delhi and the National Capital Region are neither backward nor impoverished. The Delhi government is not strapped for cash and the state flaunts indicators that make it among the most prosperous and progressive places in the country.

Its ministers and municipal councillors are forever heralding schemes and blueprints that will transform it into a futuristic, high-tech urban landscape with a surplus of services and infrastructure in time for the Commonwealth Games in 2010. Despite a gradually advancing Metro, Delhi's public transport, like its electricity or water supply or garbage disposal system, is in a shambles.

Given its population growth, the city has chronically been short of the 10,000 buses it needs. In fact, some of the deaths reported in recent months have been due to overcrowding.

Two years ago the Supreme Court asked the authorities to come up with a comprehensive public transport plan with a modernised fleet of high-capacity, low-floor buses. They have been a long time coming - so far only a handful are visible.

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