Ratlam (Madhya Pradesh): The sight of women from the Bhil community sitting on the rooftop of an overloaded van -- hanging on to their luggage and dear life as the van ascends the hilly roads -- is pretty common on the 50 km stretch of the Ratlam-Shivgarh-Bajna road, traversing a predominantly tribal area bordering Rajasthan.
An old joke about an RTO officer telling an auto-driver that he will not levy a fine on him if he shows how he managed to accommodate 20 passengers in a seven-seater auto still makes residents of Ratlam laugh, even as they live this reality every day.
Roads are damaged and steep
The roads are damaged and steep, and covering 50 km takes over two hours. The private bus service that starts at nine in the morning ceases after five pm, the two villages of Bajna and Shivgarh being the last stops. Those who live in the villages farther away have to rely on the overloaded autos and vans. This includes government and private employees who have to commute to and from Ratlam every day for work.
The hilly, potholed roads are frequented by these overloaded vehicles many times a day. Everyone, including women and children, boards these crammed autos, some sitting in the trunk while others even climb atop the mini-vans and sit on the luggage racks on the roof.
Supervisor with WCD Department in Ratlam, commutes to Bajna
Ahtesham Ansari, a supervisor with the Women and Child Development Department in Ratlam, commutes to Bajna to oversee the functioning of the village anganwadis every day. She catches the bus at nine in the morning, reaching the village a little before noon. She tries finishing off her work before five in the evening to take the last bus home.
"This is a remote area so I cannot miss the five o'clock bus, else I have to shell out over Rs 2,000 to book a private cab or take the crammed autos or vans, which do not look safe," she says.
Capitalising on the situation, autos charge arbitrary prices whereas bus charges are capped at Rs 50. "When I have to go to the centres beyond Bajna, where the buses don't go, I have to pay Rs 100 per trip to the shared autos, even though the other villages are less than 10 km away. The anganwadi workers based in Bajna prefer to travel to these centres in the remote villages riding pillion on their husbands' motorcycles as it is more economical for them," Ansari adds.
Kelkachh - the last village in Ratlam
Hakru, a resident of Kelkachh - the last village in Ratlam before the state border with Rajasthan - goes to Bajna to work as a daily wage labourer. To catch the bus to Bajna, she commutes to Gadkhange Mata area, 13 km away by a shared auto, and then boards another one to Bajna, 20 km away.
"There are only two buses on this route and the ticket costs Rs 30. But we travel in the shared auto, even though it is crowded, as we can bargain with the drivers. When they see we are labourers, they charge us less. But in the bus, even if the fare is two rupees short, the conductor asks us to get off," says Geni Bai, his wife.
"Besides, the bus drops us at Bajna and we have to take another auto or van to reach the village where we find work. These shared vehicles drop us to the exact destination, eight or 10 km beyond Bajna," adds Hakru.
Some commuters even prefer these crowded vans and autos
Also, some commuters even prefer these crowded vans and autos as they can ask the drivers to stop or slow down at random locations so they can spit out their gutka -- a luxury they do not get while on the bus. The situation is even more challenging for the residents of 24 villages lying on the other side of the Mahi River.
Residents in the dhanis (small cluster of houses) of Raipada and Jholi Chandragarh panchayat rely on boats to cross the river, and then catch shared vehicles to reach Bajna, from where they can avail of the private bus service. The lack of a bridge over the river makes the situation more challenging as boats are the only sources of commute to the other side. Paying Rs 10 for the boat ride and Rs 20 or above for the van, Anganwadi worker Kavita Dodiar says that it takes her around two hours to travel 15 km to Bajna.
Raipada Gram Panchayat Secretary Babulal says that the Setu Nigam (Madhya Pradesh Rajya Setu Nirman Nigam Ltd) has sent a Rs 30 crore proposal for the construction of a bridge across the river but it is yet to be approved by the state government. No check on dilapidated buses As per RTO records, over 20 private buses ply this route but the actual number is close to 35 as private bus operators run more buses than they are permitted to. There is no one to keep a check. Besides, there is no public transport on this route. The buses on this route are in a dilapidated condition and, according to locals, they do not even have fitness certificates.
Shabby buses pose a considerable risk to the safety of the passengers
Running on hilly, uneven roads, these shabby buses pose a considerable risk to the safety of the passengers. Instances where passengers are asked to push the bus to the side of the road after a breakdown are pretty common here. According to sources, there have been over a dozen incidents of breakdown this year alone.
In the last four years, three major accidents have taken place where buses have overturned and landed in a ditch, though there were no casualties.
"It is not like the department and officials responsible for this are not aware. The district administration turns a blind eye to the issues barring once or twice a year when there is a state-level campaign. They confiscate some buses and levy fines on the drivers or the bus operators for the public eye and things go back to normal once the buzz dies out," said a local of Bajna village on condition of anonymity.
He adds that the overloaded autos and vans pass in front of the police station every day but no police personnel ever bothers to intervene. Speaking to media, Ratlam District Transport Officer Deepak Manjhi said the Regional Transport Office (RTO) had confiscated and cancelled the license of seven buses on this route that were no longer fit for use.
"There is a shortage of staff here at the district office as there are just two people - me and a clerk - who manage everything from licence tests to renewal of licences and registrations etc. This makes it difficult for us to keep a tab on the situation and spare time to go out on the field for an inspection," he says. He adds that while the route was unserviceable these run-down buses and overloaded vans are the only way residents of the remote villages could commute to work.
"The proposal for transportation prepared by the gram panchayat has to be approved by the government as many private operators do not want to operate buses on these routes given the shabby conditions. We cannot start cancelling the bus licenses unless there are alternatives in place," he says.
Speaking about the allocation of routes to private bus operators, Manjhi explains that usually Panchayats, after assessing the demand from their constituents, send a proposal to the Zilla Panchayat which is then passed on the RTO. While the RTO may issue permits and allocate these routes to private operators, they may still refuse to ply these routes if the roads are bad or there aren't enough passengers, he says. Further complicating the matter, it has emerged that certain groups of auto/van drivers may even pay off private bus operators so they can monopolise transport options along that route.