Beware the "killer Blueline"

NEW DELHI — Around 10 a.m. on a busy Wednesday last month, 38-year-old Raj Kumar had a narrow escape from death when a careening bus plowed into him from behind. He picked himself up, dusted off his clothes and felt his limbs for breaks. Shaken but not gravely injured, he climbed into an auto rickshaw headed for the hospital.

Twenty minutes later, he decided that he didn't need the emergency room, so he left. As he started crossing the road to make his way to work, a second bus slammed into him and dragged him under the wheels. This time, he didn't get up.

This bizarre story is not as unlikely as it seems. Kumar was the 118th person to be mowed down in 2008 by one of Delhi's “killer Blueline buses,” as the local press has christened the 4,500-odd buses contracted out to private operators by the Delhi government.

And he wasn't the last. The killer buses have claimed more victims in 2009, and despite a relentless media campaign, the government's plan to phase them out is progressing at a snail's pace.

To be sure, the Bluelines are symptomatic of a larger problem. With more than 100,000 traffic fatalities a year and a mortality rate about seven times that of the roads in developed countries, according to the World Bank, India's roads are among the world's most deadly. And Delhi, where the number of vehicles is growing faster than any other city in India, presents a frightening vision of the future.

Every few months pavement dwellers — sometimes whole families — are run over in their sleep by drunk drivers. Road rage assaults and even murders are on the rise, and nobody, but nobody, follows the rules. Last year, for instance, police statistics show that incidents of dangerous driving in India's capital nearly doubled, increasing to about 125,000 from 69,000 in 2007.

"The road safety issue of Delhi is not just the Blueline buses,” says Dinesh Mohan, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology (Delhi) who studies traffic safety. “Our roads are still not designed for the amount of traffic in Delhi and other cities in India, and that's not likely to change for some time.”

Reckless drivers are indeed common on Delhi roads. But because of their mammoth size and the deafening whistles that they use instead of horns, the Bluelines are the most frightening of all. And when they strike, their victims are among India's most vulnerable people. “They may be rickshaw pullers, or people traveling on the bus, or just walking on the road,” says advocate Rajinder Singh, who has argued 20 such cases. “They're from the poorest strata of society.”

Since July 2007, when Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit announced that the Bluelines would be taken off the roads, they have killed as many as 200 people. Hardly a single bus has been removed from service, and when tough action was taken to cancel the permits of errant operators the government was forced to cave by a citywide strike.

Killers or not, it turned out that the Blueline buses were the only thing keeping the city running. “There are about 4,500 Blueline buses, and they transport about 6.5 million passengers per day,” said H.S. Kalra, president of the Federation of Delhi Bus Operators. Despite covering many kilometers in the city's worst traffic, he adds, “Bluelines are only responsible for about 10 percent of the city's traffic fatalities.”

Plans are still underway to get rid of them. Just a week before Kumar was hit twice in 20 minutes, Transport Minister R.K. Verma had unveiled a new scheme that — if implemented — steps up the phaseout deadline to 2010 from 2012. But observers remain skeptical that a plan to consolidate the Bluelines under corporations that own 100 or more vehicles, instead of individual owners, will be effective in reining in reckless drivers.

“The basic problem is that the drivers try to catch the maximum number of passengers by racing to overtake one another,” Singh says. “The reason is that the more tickets they sell, the more revenue they earn, and if the drivers don't bring in a base of revenue, the bus owners don't pay their salaries at the end of the day.”

Says Mohan: “You shouldn't have a public service which is given to private operators, because then you have a profit motive that drives the system. Any human being would behave the same way under that incentive system.”

Pedestrians have good reason to be cynical. The Bluelines are actually this decade's solution to last decade's problem — the relaunched and rebranded version of the Redline buses that enjoyed their own reputation for mayhem. Initially, the government opted to pay the Blueline operators by the kilometer, rather than letting them compete for ticket revenue, in an effort to stop the racing and careening into the bus stops that was thought to account for most accidents.

But when bus owners decided that it was more convenient, put less wear and tear on the fleet, and earned them just as much money not to stop for passengers at all, the kilometer scheme was scrapped and the Bluelines became nothing more than the Redlines with a less-bloody sounding name.