Ever wondered what students who don’t travel by the metro do to get to college? They take the bus.
This is a story of their struggle.
The outer ring road turns left after the Sarvapriya Vihar bus stop into a dusty, non-descript road that leads to some sheds, a couple of bus stops and a small building with three rooms. The rooms have painted windows carrying posters and instructions.
At around 11 am in the morning, one bus is taking a break from its relays at a place which looks like an abandoned government office from the 1960s.
This, in actuality, is the Delhi Transport Corporation’s (DTC) pass section at the Hauz Khas bus terminal.
In a queue outside one of the three rooms, stands Garima – a second-year B. A. programme student at Kamala Nehru College, Delhi University (DU). Wiping the sweat off her brow and swatting a horde of mosquitoes, she’s here to get a student bus pass for five months at Rs 515.
Garima says she travels every day from Kale Khan to Andrews Ganj and then changes another bus to reach college. She first saw an article in the newspaper on student bus passes in her first year and since then, she gets a pass made at the beginning of every semester.
When I asked Garima about the process, she said:
I first collect the bus form from my college’s photocopier, fill it, and submit it along with my fee receipt photocopy to the administration. If I submit it in the morning, I can collect a stamped form by the end of the day. But if I’m late, the admin will only hand over the form the next day. Then, depending on when I’m free with a gap of about 2 hours between classes, I walk 2.5 km from college till the bus pass centre. Many times, I have completed all of this process, got all my documents in order, but the pass won’t get made because either the server was down or the printer/laminator wasn’t working.
She further complains that whenever she calls the bus terminal to check before coming, nobody answers the phone.
She wishes the process were easier and less tedious.
This semester, DU’s online fee portal was down until very recently. As a result, Garima couldn’t procure a pass and therefore had to pay her way daily to get to college and back for a month and a half.
On the next window, Sunny and Mohit, Sanskrit students at the LBS University also wait for their passes that are getting laminated.
I went to them to ask if it’s worth the wait, they said:
Definitely. It’s cheaper and we no longer have to trouble ourselves with getting tickets on crowded buses, especially when we get on from the front. In fact, at the Hauz Khas terminal our work gets done in about 20 minutes. But in terminals like Azadpur where the general pass rush is more, it can take anything up to three hours.
For students like Garima and Sunny and many others across Delhi, travelling by the metro is still not an option.
One of the foremost reasons is the poor last-mile metro connectivity to their homes.
Even if there is a metro station close by, they either have to take a rickshaw or a bus to reach the station. Then, they get off at a metro station close to their college and walk or take a rickshaw again.
This process is longer, more tiring and also far more expensive especially after the recent hike in metro ticket prices.
On the other hand, DTC bus stops are far more pervasive and offer better last-mile connectivity.
As opposed to a daily travel cost of above Rs 100 by metro, the DTC buses cover any distance above 10 kms in Rs 20 in normal buses and above 12 kms in Rs 25 in air-conditioned buses. The student bus pass further reduces the travelling cost.
For this, students are willing to get up at the break of dawn – hours in advance – to reach bus stops and catch that one bus that will drop them just in time for class.
They know the struggle that goes into catching an empty 764 (bus number) or missing a bus because the bus driver (obviously considering himself to be Michael Schumacher on any given day) didn’t stop at the bus stop.
Unlike for those who travel by metro, daily prayers for bus commuters aren’t about getting a seat. Instead, they pray that they aren’t hanging out of the bus when the driver decides to shut the door.
And women travellers hope someone nice will allow them to stand in the space between two occupied seats so they won’t have to cringe every time an unwarranted hand were to grope them.
The other side
The struggles of those on the other side of the pass section counter isn’t too different.
Siddharth, who works at the Hauz Khas bus terminal, sits patiently at the computer filing in the information from the forms.
He has been working here for the past three years since he passed an employment exchange written test and interview. He operates the entire computer system which consists of one desktop along with a printer and a UPS. His colleague, Dharampalji, got recruited as a conductor in 1985. He got posted to the pass section in 2016.
Everyday both of them reach the office at 8 am and start disbursing the passes half an hour later. The early morning rush usually consists of general pass holders and senior citizens.
Later, as the day goes by, students trickle in.
On average, they hand out 100 passes a day. At the end of the day, they collect the receipts along with the cash and deposit them at the Vasant Vihar bus depot. The depot manager decides all major changes and sends out annual quotations for contractors to provide the hardware at the centre.
The last major decision common to all pass sections was the introduction of point of sale systems to carry out cashless transactions during demonetisation in November 2016.
When portable toilets were added behind the walls of the pass section, the area became significantly more unhygienic. There was a constant smell of refuse and garbage. As a result, the number of mosquitoes increased.
Dharampalji suggested that they move to one of the rooms away from the toilets’ corner to avoid the smell. Besides, he is also hopeful that in the coming years, a water cooler and a fan is installed under the shed where people stand in queue.
Both of them recall how earlier the pass centre had a window each for form collection, verification and cash submission. Also, there were different lines for men and women.
But very little has changed since 2002, the year when the pass section was digitised. In many ways, progress wasn’t beyond shifting to a ‘single window system’.
Perhaps because the focus of Delhi’s transport department shifted to maintaining the metro and extolling its virtues to the public and in the press.
Now, with an attempt to allow student bus passes to be applicable in AC buses, the Delhi government seems to have taken some interest.
But a much larger effort is needed if this system has to be overhauled any time soon.
Until then students will continue to pray they aren’t dangling in mid-air between an armpit and an elbow in a crowded bus.
Shruti Appalla is a second year master’s student at National Law School of India University
Featured image credit: Shruti Appalla