Monday, 30 April 2012

Bus Blues

Continuing with my India - centric topics, this time around I have chosen the humble bus, short for omnibus. The 6 wheeled, diesel powered  machine with doors that swish open at the touch of a button, the mango man's automobile,  is the muse for my latest post. 

It is seldom true if anybody in India hasn't ridden this amazing mode of transportation. It is impossible even for a single Indian, no matter how rich or poor that he / she would have missed a ride in this. Of course, I wouldn't count the scores of those Indians living in the remotest of places, which do not have access to roads leave alone travelling in buses and those millions living way below the poverty line. These are unfortunate exceptions. 

Well, we are all in agreement that we have all had the experience of travelling in buses, so it is all the more easy for each one of us to identify with the situations and the incidents that one comes across while hitching a ride in one of these metallic monsters. 

In the pre - economic liberation era in India i.e. in the 80s, when possession of a private 4 wheeler was the prerogative of the affluent &  rides in the auto rickshaw were reserved only for those special occasions or when your parents were in a particularly good mood, the bus was the obvious choice that was available to move about the city. 

Mostly state owned and even operated by Govt. departments, there was very little choice in the way we traveled. Well, I am still talking about the 80s and the 90s era when these rectangular muscular red buses abounded Bangalore's narrow gullies. However, Bangalore was still free of the IT infestation and the roads though labyrinthine were spacious enough for the free movement of these cattle of the automobile kingdom. 

2 entries, one at the front and one at the rear ensured that curious Georges did not jostle with the ladies. Special reservations for the fairer sex was also a revolutionary idea that put the latter on a pedestal. The friendly conductor would patiently ask the commuters to enter into a contract by selling tiny tickets with so many numbers and letters printed alongside the department emblem that only he could find a purpose for. One could observe the artiste in these men in khakis when they tactfully twisted and turned their wrists to punch half a dozen tiny holes on these paper tickets. These days, the IT city has conductors in Air conditioned buses handing out print outs of these tickets with details of the distance you would be travelling and the names of your embarking and disembarking points. 

The olden buses in Bangalore did not have those doors that swish open and close at the mere pull of a lever or a press of button. The entrances were just large openings at the sides of the bus, accessorized with metallic steps and a namesake railbar. These were the popular 'footboards'. Footboard travelling was the adventurous sport and the youth derived an adrenalin rush by dangling perilously on these footboards while the bus rambled along the city's roads amidst traffic that was poised for an explosion of sorts in the near future, when a bespectacled software engineer with rims as thick as 2 five rupee coins placed together, would soon start his dream project with some of this techie pals. The city's long standing monicker of 'Garden city' was all set to change to 'Silicon city'. 

Maybe, our mothers fed us real food back then, we had a robust body structure that had become impervious to the constant upheavals that the bus went through while driving in Bangalore's notorious pot hole ridden streets. I do credit the later governments of having improved the city's infrastructure quite significantly in line with its ever expanding economy and demography. 

As a student, when I did travel in these buses a few times, I experienced the true 'essence' of India. The jam packed buses during the peak hour traffic, especially in the summer gave way to a myriad of aromas (pun intended) to tingle your olfactory nerves. Truly, India has been built on the sweat and blood of its millions of citizens and one could get a first hand account of my fellow countrymen's first contribution. 

Bangalore, at least was blessed with bus stops that had decent shelters for the commuters to rest while waiting for the next bus. Back then, these buses were hardly ever on time and when they did come, they would be packed to the hilt. Tempers would run high when you had to muscle your way, first through those adventurous footboard travellers and then through the men who stood leaning against the support columns inside the bus. You would be the chose target of more senior commuters if you were a student, since (a) you travelled at concessional rates (b) you were small enough to be shouted at and (c) you carried bags that could have easily accommodated another person in its place. 

Another interesting aspect to travelling in these city buses was the 'surprise raids' by the department's vigilance section when they would board a randomly selected bus and would start checking the commuters for their tickets. A ticket - less traveler if found would be the center of everyone's attention as he was in for a grand mortification ceremony at the hands of these profanity happy 'department men' and sometimes women. A short lesson in honesty was mandatory and then came a demand for a hefty penalty. Obviously the poor chap who avoided buying the heavily subsidised ticket in the first place would not be in a position to pay the fine. After having a 'hit' the squad of inspectors move out of the bus along with the hapless conductor who also is in for an unwelcome penalty and a stern warning. Outside you observe the defaulter negotiating hard with the inspectors for an 'out of system' settlement. One would hear a wise crack from a corner of the bus, that the inspectors who usually raided during month ends - their lean period, have finally got what they wanted. 

A common sight on Bangalore's roads is the sight of dozens of people pushing a broken down bus. The buses make more than 5 - 6 trips on a regular route on any given day and they are hardly ever sent over for a thorough maintenance and repair job, except of course once in a year during Navrathri in Sep - Oct when Hindus worship weapons, tools and automobiles. The buses are decked up like bridesmaids on this occasion and are given a full body wash with papier mache ribbons and other decorative items are hung & pasted all over the bus - inside and out. 

Over the last decade at the turn of the new millennium, much has changed for good for the buses of Karnataka in general and Bangalore in specific. Both KSRTC and BMTC are the only state owned transport departments that are consistently raking in significant profits mainly due to their customer - centric programs and introduction of a number of novel schemes that cater to almost every commuting needs of the citizen. Bangalore has the highest number of buses and is second only to Chennai in India followed by Delhi and Mumbai. There are buses of literally all kinds plying the nook and corner of the city. Be it the buses that travel the inner echelons or the buses that shuttle around the city's round peripheral ring roads. There the posh air conditioned Volvos that provide a good enough reason to travel for the city's connoisseurs. There are the mini buses that are designated for routes that have narrow lanes where the big ones find maneuvering a difficult task.

Due to the ticking time bomb of traffic in the city, the state government has been striving hard to promote the use of buses for commuting to school and work. It introduced with much fanfare "Bus day" which is on the 4th of every month. Aimed at encouraging professionals who use their private modes of transportation to get to work to take to buses and at hundreds  parents who block the city streets while dropping their kids to schools, this initiative has been a success and has found an unlikely partner among the IT fraternity who have shown laudable enthusiasm in supporting the government's novel idea. This also reduces the pollution levels and the stress on the traffic management system. 

I take the bus whenever I need to go to the airport in Bangalore. The present day service of the uber cool "Vayu Vajra" is simply awesome and is definitely a pleasant break from the pollution and noise outside of it. The conductors and drivers who are both dressed in eye pleasing whites complete with lapels are cordial and serve with a smile unlike the worked up men in khaki in the regular city buses. 

Kudos to the transport department for having beefed up this section of the infrastructure so very nicely and for making the lives of millions of commuters all the more easy. Thankfully, Bangalore is getting the Metro and this metallic beast of burden will be relieved of some of its problems in the near future. To part off, I have a small bus riddle for all of you to figure out. 

- Have a happy journey. 

You are a bus driver at a station. 10 get on the bus and no one gets off. You drive 10 miles to another station where 3 people get on and 1 gets off. You drive another 10 miles only to get 25 people on and 5 people go off. Next you drive 3 miles while 12 people exit the bus. You drive back to the place knowing that a couple more stops along the way untill the ride is done. At the 2nd to last station 5 people get on and 2 get off. And at the last station (5.5 miles) 25 people get on for no reason and 1 gets off. What is the bus drivers eye color?