The mangled front of the minibus that toppled over on Monday morning. Picture by Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya
A two-month-old infant died when a packed bus running on retreaded tyres toppled over and rammed into a road divider on the Park Circus connector while allegedly overtaking another bus on Monday morning.
The baby, nestled in her mother’s lap, was crushed under the weight of several passengers who fell on her during the accident, police said.
The Motor Vehicles Act states that using retreaded tyres is illegal, but the use of such tyres is rampant among private buses whose owners cite the government’s freeze on fares as a reason for not being able to keep their vehicles in shape.
The two rear tyres of the white minibus had been retreaded, but investigators could not immediately confirm if that caused the accident. Transport experts say retreaded tyres don’t grip the road surface well.
Draupadi Devi had boarded the New Town-Parnasree bus owned by the West Bengal Surface Transport Corporation at Science City around 8.15am along with her mother, younger brother, two-year-old son and two-month-old daughter Radhika Kumari. They were on their way to the Institute of Child Health near Park Circus for Radhika’s check-up.
“The bus was speeding and wobbly. Many passengers protested but the driver did not slow down. At the Topsia crossing (in front of Viswakarma Building), the driver started overtaking another bus on the same route at high speed,” recounted Kartik Paswan, Radhika’s maternal uncle.
Witnesses said the accident occurred when the minibus was racing down the ramp of Bridge No. 4, only to be squeezed to the left by the vehicle it was allegedly trying to overtake in haste. The driver braked and lost control of the bus. The vehicle almost turned 90 degrees and hit the thick concrete road divider head on.
“There was a sudden jerk and many passengers fell over. My niece was flung away from my sister’s lap and fell on the floor. Many passengers fell on her,” Kartik said.
Radhika was taken to Calcutta National Medical College, where doctors declared her dead. The other passengers who suffered injuries were allowed to go after first aid.
The driver and the conductor of the minibus, run by a contracted private operator, are absconding.
An official of the transport department said the outer layer of the rear tyres of the bus had begun to peel. “This means that either the bus was running on retreaded tyres for a long time or it was a poor retreading job done recently,” he said.
Tyres have a lifespan, based on use and road condition. Going by the book, they must be discarded after the vehicle has run a certain number of kilometres. But owners of many commercial vehicles get old tyres retreaded for a few hundred rupees and continue using them.
At several retreading units in central Calcutta, BT Road and the Topsia-Tiljala-Tangra belt, the worn-out surface of tyres is shaved off and a new rubber sole fixed. The tyres are kept in a gas chamber before being fitted to vehicles.
“A one-member committee has been set up to find out what led to the accident. The report will reach me within 48 hours,” transport minister Madan Mitra said when Metro asked him about the minibus running on retreaded tyres.
“I have already asked the managing director of the West Bengal Surface Transport Corporation to find out whether any mechanical check was carried out before the bus left the depot today and if there was any technical snag that led to a child’s death.”
Metro has on several occasions highlighted how retreaded tyres with poor grip put at risk the lives of hundreds of passengers who commute on buses every day.
But despite all the hazards, the use of retreaded tyres in buses is rampant, admit officials of the transport department.
The white minibus involved in the accident on Monday morning is one of many leased out to private operators to ferry passengers on routes earmarked for state-run buses.
“There is a nexus at work within the department that is responsible for these buses running on retreaded tyres. New tyres that are procured disappear mysteriously and old, retreaded tyres are used,” said an official of the West Bengal State Transport Corporation.
Shanti Lal Jain, a former chairman of the Calcutta Transport Corporation, said retreaded tyres should be used only in an emergency. “It is hazardous to use these tyres, although the practice is rampant. This compromises passenger safety, especially when used on long-distance buses. Retreaded tyres should be used if no other option is available, and only to take the bus to the nearest depot.”
An official at the Public Vehicles Department said the outer layer of a retreaded tyre could lose grip and/or come off any time.