Aug 04 , 2007

Behind the rash of accidents involving Blueline buses in New Delhi is a strained informal economy of meagre wages and rampant corruption, says Rukmini Barua

The recent public uproar against Delhi’s Blueline buses over a rash of accidents and the sub-standard condition of the buses has forced the Delhi government to take action against the errant operators. Many buses have been penalised and taken off the road. The Delhi government has suggested several schemes to replace the buses, which include giving contracts to big corporations or introducing a fare system based on kilometres travelled. Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit suggested establishing cooperatives, but did not clarify whether they will be cooperatives of Blueline drivers and conductors, or of the bus operators and owners.

There is no doubt that Blueline buses are a menace to the safety of Delhi’s citizens. The public anger against them is also justified. Unfortunately, the media and the government are painting the drivers and conductors of these buses as the sole villains, without addressing the larger economy and structure of the trade that forces the drivers to break rules. Central to any understanding of the Blueline economy is the profile of the drivers and conductors who run these buses and the passengers who travel in them.

We did an interrogation of the practices of management and regulation of both bus operators and government authorities. The study was carried out in the South Delhi locality popularly known as Jamia Nagar, and which is part of the Okhla Assembly seat area. This article is based on field research conducted between 2005 and 2007.

We found during our research that the biggest beneficiaries of the Blueline bus trade were the bus owners who sublet their buses to contractors. Next on the list were officials of the traffic police and the transport department. The bus owners profit by exploiting the drivers and conductors, who work on meagre wages in a hostile working environment without any job security. The government officials, on their part, exploit loopholes in the regulations to garner huge commissions from the operators and smaller bribes from the drivers and conductors.

The policemen come to a specific point once every month to collect their commission.

The biggest losers are the passengers who face inconvenience and risk while travelling in these buses. Equally at risk are pedestrians and those who commute on Delhi roads by cycles and two-wheelers. It is they who are the most common victims of the buses.

According to our study, there were 105 heavy and light motor vehicles operating as public transport in Jamia Nagar. These vehicles were owned by around 50 people, who employed approximately 500 drivers and conductors to run them. To ply a bus as public transport, a permit from the State Transport Authority (STA) is required. In theory, this is decided by the drawing of lots. The winners have to pay an annual fee of Rs 1,100 to renew the permit. Needless to say, the allotment of permits via lotteries leaves ample room for corruption.

According to estimates gathered from interviews, informal payments made to police and transport officials by drivers and conductors of one bus is in the vicinity of Rs 2,000 per month, or Rs 24,000 a year. The policemen come to a specific point once every month to collect the money. Sayuddin, a contractor, said, “The policemen come to a designated point at the beginning of every month to collect the payment. If we do not pay the police, they find an excuse to impose a penalty on us. So it is better that we make the payment on time.” Apart from this, the owner pays sta officials for permits, fitness certificates and other qualifications.

On the basis of these figures, we can make a monthly and yearly estimate of the total informal payment made by drivers and conductors to the police and municipal authorities. There are approximately 8,000 heavy and light motor vehicles run by private operators as public transport on Delhi’s roads. These include Blueline buses and rtvs. If each vehicle yields Rs 24,000 a year, 8,000 vehicles would contribute Rs 19.2 crore every year, and this is aside from the payment made to the STA.

To better understand the informal economy of the transport sector, it is necessary to compare the above figures with those that reflect the material condition of the bus owners and contractors and the drivers and conductors. Depending on the condition of the vehicle and the route it plies on, a bus owner sublets the vehicle to a contractor on a daily rent ranging from Rs 1,200 to Rs 2,000. A contractor, in turn, sublets the bus to drivers and conductors for Rs 1,400-2,200 a day, making a daily profit of about Rs 200. Occasionally, the contractors themselves could be the drivers or conductors. The logistics of sub-contracting depend largely on the status, rapport and the influence of the owner and the dependability of the drivers and conductors. So if a person owns a bus, s/he could earn between Rs 36,000 and Rs 54,000 per month depending on the vehicle’s condition.

Wages are kept low on account of the payments that contractors and owners need to make to the regulators
Drivers work for 8 to 10 hours a day and earn between Rs 200 and 250. A conductor earns Rs 100-150 a day. Thus, drivers earn around Rs 4,000-5,000 a month and conductors Rs 2,500-3,000. They are allowed about five days of 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 stopping at red lights.

This system of wage payment and rent, and the subsequent generation of an informal economy, raises questions about the links between state regulation and poverty. In the hierarchy of any production or service, the workers are the most vulnerable, and those with limited or no skills are even more so. In the Blueline economy, it is the drivers and conductors who are the most exploited. The violation of traffic safety is compelled by the small remuneration they get and the fear of losing out even a part of that earning.

Such violation is, in turn, overlooked by the police in return for a bribe. Even big criminal cases in the transport business are settled via impersonation and bribery. Says conductor Qutubuddin, “In case of an accident, all the expenses ranging from bribes to bail are borne by the owner”. Last year, an accident took place at New Friends Colony in which two people died and the driver fled from the scene. The owner of the bus allegedly persuaded another driver named Bahadur to produce himself in court as the driver of the concerned bus. Bahadur agreed to do that after he was assured Rs 40,000 by the owner.

The need to bribe the constabulary further depresses the workers’ earnings. Wage rates are (at least in part) kept low on account of the payments that contractors and owners need to make to the regulators. The strenuous living conditions cause excessive stress and substance abuse among workers. But they also yield an augmented income for a hierarchy of officials. The Delhi government’s plan of phasing out Bluelines will not make the city a safer place. It will only disempower an already vulnerable working class. What needs to be addressed, instead, is the entire “informal” arrangement, in which practices of bribery and collusion only increase the constant threat to life.

Barua works for the Delhi-based AMAN Trust

Source: Tehelka