Badal Chandra Mondal travels 22km to work and back but distance isn’t his problem, finding a bus is.
Fort William employee Mondal’s predicament mirrors the public transport mess in Calcutta, where buses are going off the roads because of the government’s insistence on sticking to fares that operators say are unrealistic.
Metro travelled with 55-year-old Mondal from Moynagarh, on the southern fringes, to Fort William in the heart of the city on Tuesday morning and joined him again on the return trip to find out how a five-minute wait for a bus has turned into at least 20 minutes of uncertainty and then a tiring break journey.
To office: 8.20am
Mondal, an employee in the motor vehicles department of the army’s Eastern Command headquarters, needs to report at his workplace by 10am. He reaches the Dakghar bus stop, a 30-minute bicycle ride from his home, with more than an hour to spare.
Not a single bus comes along in the next 15 minutes. A bus on route 259 is the first to arrive, at 9.05am. It is packed as usual and Mondal, bag slung on his shoulder, is unable to board it.
The next bus arrives at 9.10am; it’s a Chattabazar-Howrah station mini. Mondal and eight other people, including this reporter, barely manage to get in. “There are only four buses on this route throughout the day. We are lucky to have found one,” Mondal tells a co-passenger.
The journey till the Fort William entrance takes 40 minutes. On most days, it takes longer. “Today, it travelled faster than usual. We were lucky again,” smiles Mondal.
|Commuters queue up at a bus stop at Taratala at 11.09am on Tuesday.
Picture by Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya
According to regular passengers on this route, bus connectivity was smooth until four months ago. The long wait for a bus and the scramble for a foothold when one comes along are the outcome of a drastic drop in the number of vehicles.
According to data provided by bus owners’ association, there were 45 buses on route 259 in November 2012. At the start of this month, not more than 25 were still on the road.
The minibus fleets for the Bata-Howrah and Chattabazar-Howrah routes have also shrunk from 25 and 19 to 10 and 4 respectively. Around 4,000 out of the 8,500-odd private buses, including minis, have pulled out across various routes over the past few months.
The worst hit are commuters like Mondal, who have little option but to take a bus to and from work. “The place where I stay is so far from a Metro station (Kalighat, 12km away, is the nearest) that it doesn’t make sense to travel to one, board a train till Esplanade and walk till my workplace,” says the Fort William employee.
The scarcity of buses has not only triggered overcrowding but also added to the journey time. “Buses now make more stops to pick up and drop passengers. That delays everyone,” says a regular commuter on the Chattabazar-Howrah route.
To home: 4.55pm
Mondal is waiting for a bus opposite the south gate of Fort William, on the road to Kidderpore. The minutes tick by but there is no sign of a bus headed towards where he lives. After five minutes, he decides to walk to another bus stop.
At 5.10pm, Mondal boards a bus on route 37 near the Hastings crossing. It is headed for Dhakuria via the Taratala crossing. “The longer I wait at this time of day, the more crowded the buses will get. It’s better to do a break journey. I will get off at Taratala and look for another bus,” he tells Metro.
The bus travels fast and reaches Taratala at 5.30pm. Mondal disembarks.
Another 15 minutes go by before a Bata-Howrah mini bus comes along. But this one is so crowded that it does not halt at the bus stop. Mondal has a helpless look on his face when the mini slows down at a distance to allow two passengers to get off the vehicle.
Five more minutes tick away before a bus appears. Mondal is glad it is the 77A; this one shuttles between Howrah and Dakghar.
Although packed, Mondal elbows his way into the bus with 15 other people. He had found the front door crowded and run towards the rear one, only to come back running towards the front to plonk a leg on the footboard with one hand on the side handle.
That’s the way Mondal travels till Taratala police station, around 1.5 kilometres from the crossing. He manages to get in for the remaining 3.5km journey only when some passengers disembark.
It is 6.15pm when the bus halts at the Dakghar crossing. Mondal is sweating profusely and he takes a swig of water from a jug at a nearby sweet shop before walking towards the store outside which he had parked his bicycle in the morning.
Mondal has only three buses to choose from to reach the Dakghar bus stop from the Fort William gate. The options double if he travels from Taratala, though the wait for a bus can stretch up to 15 minutes. There are autos and shuttle taxis but they charge double or more than the Rs 6 Mondal pays for a bus ride.
An auto ride from Taratala till Dakghar costs Rs 12. Illegal shuttle taxis charge Rs 30 per passenger.
“I don’t mind paying a rupee or 2 extra if the state government can improve bus services. People like me need a respite from this pathetic journey to and from office. By the time I reach home from office, I am so tired that I can barely spend quality time with my family,” rues Mondal.
While Mondal is willing to shell out a little more, the Mamata Banerjee government cites people like him for its refusal to hike bus fares even though the price of fuel continues to rise.
Since the last fare revision on October 31, diesel price has gone up by nearly Rs 1.50 a litre and vehicle insurance has become 43 per cent costlier. The prices of spares and the cost of maintenance have risen too.
“Most of the buses are running at a loss. If fares are not increased, we are not sure how long our owner will keep the bus on the road,” said Ratan Das, the conductor of a bus on route 259.
Transport minister Madan Mitra had claimed on Tuesday that his department was forced to take recourse to a draw of lots to select a few from among many applicants for new bus permits.
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