Ardhendu Roy

The Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) bus service is Delhi’s lifeline – to combat life-threatening pollution, to ensure safe and reliable public transport for women, and as the go-to transport solution for those surviving on a meagre salary in a city like Delhi. But instead of getting stronger, this lifeline is fast shrinking, thanks to being starved of support by successive governments at the State and Centre.

Successive governments have ignored the Delhi Master plan directives (the latest is Master Plan 2021), Court judgments, and the popular mandates of the people of the city. Delhi roads today are alarmingly congested – with unplanned and multiple extremely diverse transport system from metro rail to e-rickshaws to cycle rickshaws. Inadequate supply of public transport, particularly the DTC-run bus service, has resulted in transport chaos.

This downfall is not recent and unplanned but it had started way back in the mid-eighties and is continuing till date as the objective is to dismantle DTC for many reasons. Successive governments introduced the ‘killer line’ private buses in the city roads; they introduced the cluster system; they contractualized and privatized DTC and finally their objective seems to be a total dismantling of DTC by refusing to reinforce the existing fleet size of the corporation by introducing new buses.

If the government does not buy new buses immediately to strengthen the existing fleet-size of DTC, the corporation will collapse totally by 2023. This alarming situation needs immediate intervention by the governments for the survival of DTC because the city itself can only evolve with DTC. Other than this Public Sector Agency no one will be able to plan and implement a proper transport system for the masses. Delhi demands a safe, cheap, clean and reliable transport system on the roads and of course the answer is DTC. The daily footfall of metro rail had fallen to more than 2 lakhs and the fresh fare hikes expected in the coming weeks will further force people to shift away from metro to unplanned modes of cheap transport including two-wheelers which would worsen the road situation of the city and lead to more pollution. The only respite may come from DTC if the government fulfills its responsibility towards the people of Delhi.

Just before the Delhi Assembly Election, I had the privilege of being part of a delegation of Trade Union activists who met the Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal at his residence at Kosambi. We had explained to him the grim situation of Delhi roads, the inevitable collapse of DTC, and the plight of transport sector workers who ensured commutability on the city roads without any secure employment. The activists had also invited him to a people’s conclave to save public transport. Ultimately, the former transport minister, Saurabh Bhardwaj, represented the Chief Minister at the conclave and had promised a complete overhaul of the public transport system, particularly DTC.

Unfortunately the Kejriwal government has broken this promise and neglected the transport sector totally. The AAP Government is trying to introduce private players solely to safeguard the interest of the capital involved and invested in the transport sector. Kejriwal’s statement at an industrialists’ conclave regarding the transport policy of the government that “the government is not interested in plying public buses in the city roads, but plays the role of an aggregator” is not a mere statement but reflects the mindset of the present government.

The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has recently published a report –”Waiting for a Bus: Strategies to Improve Delhi’s Bus System” which provides an informative and important input on the issue of a public transport policy.

While this report certainly has much that is useful, it is striking that a report that aims to provide a roadmap for bus sector reform ignores issues pertaining to the rights of transport sector workers. Can the rights of common city dwellers to a safe, cheap transport network be protected if a public sector like DTC is strategically being dismantled to usher in private players?

Some highlights from the CSE report have been enlisted below to indicate the common ground that is shared by unions like the DTC Workers’ Unity Centre that has been actively resisting the move to dismantle DTC and deny citizens the right to a safe, secure, cheap and environment-friendly bus transport network in the city.

    1. A bus occupies only twice the road space taken by a car, but can carry 40 times the number of passengers. According to a study by the Paris based international Energy Agency (IEA), a reasonably-full bus can replace anywhere between 5 and 50 other motorized vehicles. More buses can also means an enormous saving in oil (and thus money) and reduction in pollution.

    2. When the Delhi Master Plan 2021 set a target of 80 percent share of public transport in the city by 2020, it took cognizance of the Rail India Technical and Economic Service (RITES) estimate that to achieve this target the share of buses will have to be at least 73 percent of public transport trips. Delhi therefore, has to plan a bus system to enable meeting such a target.

    3. According to the CSE compilation, Beijing has 1,205 buses per million people, Paris has 1,783 buses per million people, but Delhi has only 333 buses for the same number of people.

    4. Given the lifetime of buses as per DTC standards (20 years), the projected fleet-size of DTC by 2023 is only 33 buses.

    5. If we assumed that the Delhi government would agree to maintain DTC fleet size to 5,500 (according to the Master Plan) then DTC needs to procure 1,148 + 563=1708 buses in 2017 itself and then 6 in 2019, 657 in 2021 and 3093 in 2023. Is there any plan to effect such procurement? Or is the plan to just let public buses die out?

    6. For the financial year 2017-18, a sum of Rs.5,506 crore has been earmarked for both transport sector infrastructure and public transport. But bus transport’s share in it is a mere Rs. 100 crore, for the construction of bus depots and purchase of DTC buses – this is less than 2 percent of the proposed transport sector spending. Delhi government will contribute Rs.1,156 crore to DMRC for metro rail during the same period.

Apart from the afore-mentioned points that the CSE report highlights, there are certain related issues that the DTC Workers’ Unity Centre and others have raised. Though DTC is a public service provider, it pays more taxes than the metro (Rs. 1,915 + Rs. 280 per passenger per annum) and private vehicles. Again DTC has a narrower revenue base of only fare box and advertisement, compared to metro rail’s forays into real estate, commercial development and others. In recent times, the Delhi government had announced that they will procure mini/midi buses for DTC to ease out the shrinking road space and save some money in the process which in turn would be used to procure new buses. But the CSE report and DTC employees reject the idea of procuring midi or mini buses. It will not help to ease out the road and commuter pressure on the transport system. The Kejriwal government’s complaint of a lack of depot spaces for new buses has been summarily rejected by the Environment Pollution (Prevention & Control) Authority for Delhi and NCR in a note submitted to the Supreme Court after investigation on land requirement for depots.

So the basic question relating to the public transport system is twofold. One will be the DTC’s future in the overall transport scenario in Delhi and the future of the Road Transport workers. For the last couple of years, the idea was Delhi should continue with its mixed system of DTC and cluster bus operations to meet the social obligations as well as ensure efficiency on the roads. The CSE report has also introduced another idea of privately owned bus aggregator system (like OLA/UBER in taxi service) who will cater to primarily car owners. One wonders why the needs of the weakest sections of Delhi’s population do not become the primary basis for offering alternatives? The principle ought to be that DTC should not run only to earn profits but to secure the road space for the weakest sections of society. The Kejriwal government is hell-bent on shedding responsibility for DTC to private players through the cluster system. At the time of preparing this report, the news came that the Delhi government is in the process of scrapping the order of procuring 1000 new buses for DTC.

On Kejriwal’s very first day as Chief Minister, recall how DTC workers had spontaneously gathered to hail his election and raise their demand with the slogan: ‘Aaj karo, abhi karo, permanent karo, permanent karo’ (Do it today, do it now, give contract workers permanent jobs). By weakening and privatizing DTC, Kejriwal is reneging on this implied promise to the DTC workers.

The last important factor is the future of the road transport workers, contractual and informal workers involved in the transport sector and pensioners. The backbone of any transport system is always its workers. In Delhi, DTC and cluster bus system workers have always suffered the worst in terms of job security, wage, working condition (like “ok duty”) and irregular and uncertain pension and medical benefit after retirement. The Delhi government has ignored each and every agitation, submission to secure and ensure the basic minimum livelihood for the workers on the wheel. But the government’s response has been adverse and callous.

The people of Delhi own and need DTC to survive in the city. Till date DTC and cluster bus services cater to more than a footfall of 35 lakh daily, which is more than the metro. We must unite ourselves to save and ensure a reliable public transport provider like DTC and also safeguard the interest of the most important factor of the sector: its workers. 