Buses bring rural Bihar closer to Delhi
An impatient Chandan Singh does not wait for the bus to come to a halt or the passengers to alight. He simply elbows his way past a bunch of sweaty passengers to throw a handkerchief on a lower sleeper berth to “reserve” it.
“Your seat number is mentioned on your ticket. This is not a train, everyone has a fixed seat,” a conductor tries to tells him.
Meanwhile, 38-year-old Mukesh Pandey, who has arrived on the bus from Muzaffarpur to Delhi, hops off the bus as he hurries to collect his refrigerator tied firmly to the roof.
The bus is one of over 100 that private operators now ply between Delhi and Bihar towns such as Patna, Muzaffarpur, Darbhanga, Motihari, Gopalganj, Seetamarhi and Jaynagar. The buses are increasingly becoming a lifeline for lakhs of Bihari migrants who reach Delhi, who otherwise have been struggling to reserve a train ticket or find a seat.
THE TRAIN JOURNEY
The journey takes lesser time, is more punctual and on most occasions one can find a seat just before the vehicle departs. This is in stark contrast to the Bihar-bound trains which are often delayed by as much as 24 hours, needs a ticket to be booked months in advance and on which landing a Tatkal ticket requires monumental effort and ample luck.
“If you want a confirmed ticket, you have to plan three or four months in advance. The private jobs don’t offer us that luxury. In an emergency situation, you either approach politicians and government officials with requests for quota seats or pay hefty sums to agents,” says Amit Kumar Singh, a resident of Bihar’s Sitamarhi, who owns a restaurant in Dwarka. “Booking flights at the last moment is also expensive and doesn’t offer last-mile connectivity. This bus to Bihar has come as a great relief,” he adds.
Singh is not exaggerating. According to the Indian Railway data, there are 45 trains that originate from Delhi and terminate in Bihar. The daily capacity of these trains is 16,000, but nearly 20,000 Bihar-bound passengers travel on them every day. Another 6,000 are left with waitlisted tickets. Those without seats often find themselves jostling for space at the coach gates, near the toilets or even standing throughout the long journey.
Private transporters smelt an opportunity after the laying of the smooth Yamuna Expressway and the Agra-Lucknow Expressway which cover nearly 550 kilometres of the 1,050-1,200 kilometre journey. A former MLA from Bihar, a local politician in Burari and a transporter, who earlier plied buses between Delhi and Rajasthan, are among some who grabbed the opportunity on the Delhi-Bihar routes.
“Roads are good and traffic-free till Muzaffarpur and even beyond, which helps reduce the travel time and our expenses,” Yasmin Ansari, manager of Hare Ram Travels in Anand Vihar, said.
The bus journey in itself offers little variety in landscape as they increasingly include large stretches of agricultural fields, dotted with thatched huts. Much of the journey happens in the night, and by the time the passengers wake up, they are nearly home. Many service providers boast of a journey time of as little as 16 hours to Muzaffarpur and 19 hours to Patna.
“In reality, most buses take up to 19-20 hours to Muzaffarpur, which is still a better bet than the regular trains where the waiting time because of delays could be as long as a day or more,” says Raj Kumar, an advertising professional. His job requires him to make fortnightly trips to Bihar and he prefers taking the bus.
A regular bus offers anywhere between 40 and 55 seats, one-fourth of which are usually recliners and the rest sleepers. The ticket cost varies, but is usually Rs 1,000-1,200 for a recliner and Rs 1,400-Rs 1,600 for a sleeper.
“If anyone doesn’t have money, we adjust them in the driver’s cabin for Rs 500,” says Jeet Mishra, an agent scouting for passengers near Anand Vihar railway station.
Buses depart between noon and 6pm and you can find a seat minutes before departure in off season. The rush is greater during festive season and costs rise by Rs 200-400. During the peak festival season, as many as four passengers are willing to share two sleeper seats, which the service providers willingly oblige.
Buses depart from places such as Kashmere Gate, Akshardham, Burari, Nangloi and Narela — catering to high Bihari population in these neighbourhoods. But Anand Vihar is their main departure point and it helps operators net passengers who fail to find a train ticket at the nearby railway station from where most Bihar-bound trains depart. “We offer special discounts to auto drivers who bring us passengers,” says Mishra.
TIME TO ADJUST
Some buses initially offered toilet facility, which they quickly stopped. “Since the buses are air-conditioned, the packed compartment would stink. It was also not feasible to carry much water in the bus for toilet use,” says Niranjan Vairagi, manager of Ashok Travels, which operates nine buses to Bihar daily. So, the buses stop at three places — Agra, Lucknow and Kushinagar in UP for food and rest.
Some of these buses are equipped with a television set playing old Bollywood movies, but it often draws little to no interest from passengers who prefer fiddling with their mobile phones instead. The box-kind of enclosures which surround the sleeper seats anyway does not allow most passengers the luxury of watching television.
SERVES MANY PURPOSES
Many Biharis also prefer the buses for peculiar reasons. For the last few summers, Anugrah Sharma, a 68-year-old retired school principal, had been tying up with reluctant train drivers to send mangoes,litchis from his groves in Darbhanga to his banker daughter in Delhi.
Prone to frequent delays, the trains would take as long as 48 hours to reach Delhi, often leaving the fruits rotting and Sharma’s daughter waiting endlessly at the railway station.
This June, Sharma coordinated with a bus driver. One evening, he tipped the driver Rs 100 and loaded two cartons in the air-conditioned bus. By the next afternoon, his daughter had stacked the fruits in her refrigerator.
The same day, factory worker Sohan Lal had to urgently send his 12-year-old son to his ill mother in Gopalganj. Lal couldn’t manage leaves to accompany his son and a train ticket was next to impossible at such a short notice. The boy was made to hop on to a bus in Anand Vihar and had his uncle received him in Gopalganj. “I couldn’t have even thought of sending my son alone on a train journey,” says Lal.
A POLITICAL JOURNEY
In a city where 32 of the 70 assembly constituencies are heavily populated with Purvanchali migrants, buses to Bihar are a way to connect with voters. Politicians make their presence felt at the launch of any new bus. Mahabal Mishra, a Congress leader, says during his days as a MP from west Delhi, helping people get train tickets worked as a ‘goodwill’ gesture.
“I would receive nearly 100 requests every day and would arrange tickets for 20 to 30 people,” says Mishra. Now that he is no more in power, he still receives about 20-25 requests every day, but prefers to direct them towards buses.
Pratyush Kant, media head of BJP’s Delhi unit, sees it as a ‘revolution’. “Delhi’s is a story of migration and providing good transportation to migrants has to be a priority. I have tried hard to have the government initiate bus services to Bihar, but to no avail. The private players eventually stepped in,” says Kant.
Only two months ago, Kant had inaugurated a bus service, that was initiated by some residents of Kirari. “We pooled in money and rented a Volvo bus to ply to Bihar’s rural areas from where the residents of our colony hail,” says Ajay Pathak, one of the residents.
ONLY A MATTER OF TIME
RK Singh, former chairman of the Railway Board, says the passengers switching from trains to any other transportation that offers timeliness, cleanliness and security is not surprising. “The infrastructure of the railways has not really improved since the 1960s and 70s. Trains were increased, but it only led to congestion on the routes. The railways have reached a saturation point and passengers are choosing better transports such as flights and buses,” says Singh.
“Every other month is a peak season for commuters travelling between Delhi and Bihar. The buses will be able to sustain their business. Top class highways have offered them a sustainable business model. It is a win-win situation for bus operators and passengers,” Singh adds.
For now, these buses are preferred by the working class and, occasionally, the salaried people who may have failed to land a train or flight ticket, but Singh believes that with improvement in service, the middle class may start opting for buses over trains and flights.
NOT WITHOUT PROBLEMS
But the buses are not without their own set of problems. Air-conditioners frequently go on the blink midway, making travel in summers hot and frustrating. Delays are often caused by drivers willing to postpone departure by up to two-three hours if it can help land them an extra passenger. The buses are also yet to connect to some important Bihar towns such as Bhagalpur and Katihar.