“Halve the fares, double the fleet” – these were the words sloganeered at the Bus Bhagya Beku movement in Bangalore on March 4, 2017. Those words are still ringing in my ears as I write this piece.
Over the past year, I have often wondered about the status of public welfare systems in a country like India. Indeed, the status of these systems in India distresses me. Furthermore, I am very much aware of the increasing privatisation in all sectors – health, education, transport, retail, among many others.
After spending a year being associated with the liberal arts, my view of the world has drastically changed. So, when I came back to my hometown, Bangalore, after the course (a Young India fellowship), I started using the public transport system. I even toggled between using the services of Uber cabs and auto-rickshaws.
I started closely observing the demographics of individuals using buses. I started investigating the people who use buses and the number of people commuting by means of public transport. I also tried to find what forms of discrimination (such as gender, sexuality, class, caste, region, disability) were being perpetuated in these spaces.
I noticed that many wage labourers and street vendors commute by buses daily. Significantly, I witnessed how language is a barrier for outstation people when they try to interact with fellow passengers, conductors, or even when they try to figure out if their destination has arrived.
I observed that buses not only connect Bangalore with other cities in the same district; they also help in connecting the capital to other far-flung areas in other districts. For example, many of the government school teachers, with whom I work in Ramanagara, travel to and from Bangalore every day.
One should understand the ordeal of my coworkers, who have to support their households in Bangalore and also travel outside Bangalore, on a daily basis. Buses connecting Bangalore to these schools are the only possible means of sustaining such a way of life.
I started questioning my choices when it came to transport. If I had sufficient time to go to a particular place in Bangalore, should I take a bus or make use of an Uber cab? In fact, I have taken Uber taxis on a number of occasions. However, interactions with the cab drivers have helped me realise the exploitative tactics that Uber employs against its own drivers.
Undoubtedly, it is a profit-making company. How long can it survive on its valuation and funding?
I have asked many drivers about their experiences of working as an Uber driver. Based on these conversations, I now know that Uber uses some kind of an A/B testing model. While some drivers have to complete a number of trips, the others have to make a certain amount of money every day in order to obtain incentives. Of course, the number of trips to be completed and the amount of money to be earned varies amongst the drivers.
At first glance, it seems like a great way to lure in drivers. However, the longer the tenure of the driver, the more difficult it becomes to earn incentives. Moreover, many drivers take out loans at the start of their ‘journey’. Subsequently, it becomes even easier for Uber to trap these drivers in debt, as they are dependent on the company’s incentives to repay their loans.
Yes, the first takers earned a lot of money. But now, Uber has suddenly decreased its incentives and the drivers are facing the exploitation head-on. This has lead to continued strikes by the drivers. And what could better reflect the company’s values better than the behaviour of Uber’s chief executive officer (CEO) towards a Uber driver recently.
The situation at OLA isn’t any different, either.
Well, why did I use Uber’s services after all? Why did I take auto-rickshaws? And when I got my two-wheeler, why did I choose it over the buses?
The reality is that the public transport system in Bangalore is in a bad state. There is also the problem of ever-increasing traffic. The buses are over-filled, they don’t ply on all the routes, they are infrequent at times, and their timings indeterminate.
Auto-rickshaws demand a higher fare on quite a number of occasions. The city isn’t conducive to cycling, either. The metro is yet to connect all areas in the city.
In spite of all this, one is expected to reach office on time and be as productive as possible, on a daily basis. Using a two-wheeler to reach a destination is actually faster and cheaper than taking a bus.
The question now is: what do you do? Personally, I haven’t given up hope in public transport systems. The government and all the transport committees have a mandate. They therefore have a duty to provide good, efficient and accessible public transport systems to all citizens.
The Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) has cancelled 6000 trips last year.
Bus fares continue to be on the rise. The smart tactic that is generally used is having a low minimum fare (say ₹5), followed by a more than 100% spike (say ₹12) in the fare for the next set of destinations, and so on. A single bus pass costs ₹1050. How would a garment factory worker afford such a pass on a meagre monthly salary of ₹7000?
The government and the different city-planning committees keep focussing on ill-planned, lucrative and expensive projects like a steel flyover, elevated corridors, widening roads, cutting trees, and the metro rail project. However, they haven’t thought about the lines along which Bengaluru’s urban transport system should be planned. Neither have thought of the needs of the citizens who use public transport daily.
It is high time that the people know who the city-planners of Bengaluru are. One should question why citizens are not involved actively in the decision-making and planning of their own city. Finally, one should question why the system of city-planning here has been, and still is top down.
One might say that if the number of buses are increased, the traffic will increase and so will the congestion. One might even suggest that bus timings and frequencies need to be fixed before moving on to the other concerns. One might also suggest metro trains and car pooling to be alternative solutions to fixing the mess in Bengaluru’s public transport system. And the list goes on.
Yes, there are myriad steps that can (and perhaps, should) be taken. However, the core area of any city plan should focus on inducing citizens to avail the public transport system, in preference to other means of transport.
If the number of buses increase, then the frequency of buses will automatically increase. Therefore people would not have to constantly worry about bus timings. However, this would require people to step out of the habit of availing Ola and Uber services whenever they commute.
Why would one want a city where the buses are always overfilled? Why would someone want a city where he/she cannot participate in the city-planning process? Why would people want a city where the only solutions are quick-fix ones like flyovers and continuous traffic corridors?
This is the time to come together and join hands with citizen groups like the Bengaluru Bus Prayanikara Vedike, Citizens for Bengaluru, Environmental Support Group, Alternative Law Forum, and other similar groups in Indian cities. It is time to demand an efficient public transport system. It is time to push the government to support the various transport committees in terms of budget by reducing the tax burden on these committees (if there be any), and work with various stakeholders (including those who use buses) to ease the woes of the public transport mechanism.
It’s time to shout “bus bhagya beku” or similar slogans . It’s time to change the status quo of ivory tower-seated city planners. We have no other option but to fight for our rights.
PS – The BMTC has expressed that it will bring in some changes by adding 3000 buses and reducing the second stage fare from ₹12 to ₹10. But the Bus Bhagya Beku movement is still continuing.