The Blueline buses are somewhat like stray dogs: free to roam around anywhere they please, free to bite and kill and go into hiding whenever the dogcatchers/traffic squads come around.
And like stray dogs, they have no owners. Almost.
Most Blueline buses are run not by their owners but a class of people called contractors. Dhirendra Kumar, for instance, is a contractor. He doesn’t own any bus, but runs five, all of them for his one-time employer.
Dhirendra started off as a driver. But he was the best in his employer’s stable. “My owner often said I was the best driver as I never missed the target of picking up maximum number of passengers from every stop. I used to pay the DTC drivers on my route to stay behind my bus,” he said.
The employer wanted someone as effective as Kumar on all his routes.
That didn’t happen, so the bossman did the next best thing: took his star driver off driving duties and gave him a promotion, as a contractor.
The employer then moved on, to concentrate on his other business, especially textile. The transport business was now in the hands of his trusted contractor Kumar. It’s a very clear demarcation of duties here.
The employer only keeps track of his returns. Kumar does everything else: hiring drivers, conductors, springing them from custody after accidents, bribing officials, refilling and maintenance.
Inquiries revealed that contractors who pay a daily amount ranging from Rs 2,000 to Rs 3,500 to the bus owners named in the permits manage 2,600 of the 4,379 Bluelines plying on Delhi roads daily.
The employer/owner takes two-thirds of the daily earnings, leaving the rest for Kumar, which is not too little he insists. This is a good arrangement and they both like it. But it is illegal.
The transport department only recognises the owner and not the contractor. But officials also point out that many of those registered as owners are actually contractors fronting for well know politicians and officials.
“It is not easy to differentiate between real and fictitious owners,” said Delhi transport minister Haroon Yusuf. His officials are talking to the traffic police on how to sort the situation. But expect nothing.
“If the transport department is facing the North Pole, traffic police is facing the South Pole and this is the real problem. Illegal contractorship can be finished within a week if there is effective patrolling,” Chetna, a non-governmental organization working on transport, told a state assembly committee earlier this year.
The practice is worrying officials because it is at the heart of the mess around Bluelines. The owners don’t run buses so they are not aware of what’s happening, what kind drivers are being used, good, bad or ugly.
The contractor’s only concern is the bottom line. The money must keep coming, no matter what. Even if some of the notes have a bit of blood on them. Just too bad someone came under a speeding bus. “Earnings from tickets, number of trips per day on the specified route and how many passengers to be allowed in each bus is my discretion, said Rajinder Kumar, another bus contractor.
Of course, he doesn’t care about anything else much. His drivers are under instructions to prevent rival service buses from overtaking or picking up that extra passenger. And DTC buses are paid to trail.
Under pressure from employers and contractors, drivers must set themselves a scorching pace. “Working without a break has caused severe pain in my back,” says a Blueline driver, Vinod Chauhan. “But I can bear it with tobacco during daytime and liquor in the evening,” Chauhan added. And in between are endless trips between terminals, death-defying chases for that extra passenger. And, of course, accidents.