The Bangalore Metropolitan Transportation Corporation has for years allowed hundreds of drivers to get back behind the wheel after causing bus accidents that killed pedestrians, cyclists—and in some cases their own passengers, an IIJNM investigation has found.
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Records and interviews show the massive agency fires a small percentage of the drivers it concludes were fully “at fault” for the fatal wrecks. Most are put back to work, in some cases with punishments no greater than if they had been involved in fender benders.
And in a number of cases, the pattern of leniency backfired: drivers given a second chance went on to have at least one more fatal accident before they were terminated.
The findings of the IIJNM study, which reviewed hundreds of internal documents obtained through the 2005 Right To Information Act, are at odds with the agency’s public image as one of the most efficient and safest urban bus systems in India.
BMTC officials are quick to boast about the “gold medals” the agency has won from the Transportation Ministry for clocking the fewest number of accidents per kilometer. Promising “our goal is your safety,” the agency touts its driver training, yoga sessions, relaxation classes, mechanical upgrades and alcohol “de-addiction” classes it offers its corps of 15,000 drivers and trainees. It is also ordering a sophisticated driving simulator to test recruits.
Meanwhile, it promises tough measures against reckless drivers. After a flurry of deadly collisions late last year, a BMTC spokesman assured the public that the agency was weeding out those responsible.
“In cases where we find our driver is totally responsible for the accident, normally we remove [him] from the services,” K. Vijayakumar Rai, Deputy Chief Labour and Welfare Officer, said at the time. “We don’t tolerate indiscipline in BMTC.”
The IIJNM investigation showed otherwise.
The review looked at hundreds of driver histories and nine years’ worth of logbooks tracking all accidents, as well as the conclusions of internal investigations that assigned fault and handed out punishments. Student journalists also interviewed bus drivers involved in fatal wrecks, families of victims, BMTC officials and traffic safety experts.
The probe found:
- Of 500 fatal accidents since 2000, BMTC drivers were judged “at fault” in 367—or 73 per cent of the cases. For many of the drivers, the fatal crashes were not isolated incidents but part of a pattern that included major and minor accidents as well.
- BMTC dismissed or removed from service 35 of the 317 drivers responsible for those accidents—or 11 per cent. The rest were put back to work after their pay was docked, forfeited future raises or had their training periods extended. In 11 per cent of the cases, drivers received verbal reprimands.
- In 28 cases, drivers who returned to work went on to have a second, even a third deadly accident before being fired.
- While BMTC accidents-per-kilometer are stable, the absolute number is edging up. And the financial fallout is costing the agency about twice what is generally known.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of a deadly boomerang was the case of K Abdul Ghafoor, records show (click here to see Ghafoor’s record).
A driver for just over a year, he caused his first fatal accident on 16th September, 2007. Sent back to work, he logged his second deadly crash exactly a month later—16th October—before he was purged from the driver rolls.
Top BMTC officials strongly defend their treatment of killer drivers, saying it would be unfair and even inhumane to fire someone for a fatal slip if he otherwise has a good record. Their feelings were echoed by spokespersons for public bus systems in Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai, who follow the same general policies.
K S Vishwanath, Chief Traffic Officer for Operations, called the IIJNM findings “bullshit” and said bus drivers face intense mental stress dealing with the chaotic mix of traffic on Bangalore’s broken and overcrowded streets. He said drivers should only be let go if they have three accidents within five to ten years, or log fatals in combination with other factors such as bad behavior and absenteeism.
“You explain to me: do all the murderers get a death sentence from the court?” he said. “No, right? Some of them get life imprisonment. Likewise, how do you expect us to fire all the drivers who are involved in fatal accidents?”
G G Hegde, manager of Human Resources Development, added that it would send a wrong message to the BMTC workforce if drivers were fired for their first fatal accident.
“Firing is not the solution,” said Hegde. “If the employees get a feeling that we’ll just fire them, then nobody will take this job.”
Contacted by IIJNM, bus drivers with fatal accidents acknowledge they often drive recklessly, but blame it on outdated time schedules drawn up long before Bangalore became a traffic nightmare.
Karnataka’s leading traffic expert, M N Sreehari, agreed that the schedule times haven’t been overhauled scientifically for years, resulting in horrifying conditions for drivers. Still, shown the numbers from the IIJNM review, he expressed shock that BMTC wasn’t firing more drivers who caused deadly collisions.
“The common man, the outsider, doesn’t know about this,” said Sreehari, a Ph.D. in engineering and advisor to the Government of Karnataka, including the BMTC. He said the number of drivers terminated should be closer to 75 per cent.
“Are you going to keep them [at-fault drivers] on to kill other people?”
By many measures, BMTC is the gold standard of urban bus service in India.
While public bus systems in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Ahmedabad bleed red ink, BMTC has stockpiled a surplus of more than Rs. 360 crore during the last two fiscal years for which statistics are available, 2006-2007 and 2007-2008.
Each day, 4,900 of its blue-and-white Ashok Leyland or sleek red Volvo “Vajra” buses rumble through the city and suburbs, carrying the equivalent of half the population over enough kilometers to reach the moon and back, with more than enough to spare.
The vast majority of the system’s 15,000 permanent and trainee drivers do their jobs without calamity. But as BMTC adds routes, and deploys hundreds more buses a year, the number of collisions is rising. For the first time ever, the tally of deadly bus accidents reached into the triple digits, to 109, during 2007-2008 (see graph).
Each life taken by a BMTC bus leads to criminal charges against the driver and a civil lawsuit against the agency. The average damage award is Rs. 4.8 lakhs, the study found.
Then there’s the human suffering.
Rafad Banu ticks off the numbing chronology of 29th December, 2006, when a BMTC bus bound for City Market collided with her 17-year-old son, Mohammad Zeeshan, as he was riding his bicycle to work.
“He went out at 8:45 AM. I got the news at 9:05 AM. At 12:30 PM we got the body and the service started at around 1 PM. Then, they took him away.”
As a gesture of “immediate solace,” BMTC representatives approach grieving relatives like Banu with Rs. 15,000 to defray ambulance bills and funeral costs.
Most survivors, who are generally poor, take the money, say agency officials. Others refuse it, figuring it might be used against them in a subsequent civil lawsuit.
Deceased Arundhati’s father is angry upon BMTC for its indifference.
R.M Viparthy, Arundhati’s father, is still angry, not about the spurned payment but because he never heard from BMTC again.
“They have not even bothered to telephone us, to contact us, or meet us, to express they’re sorry and their sympathy—nothing,” he said, on the anniversary of the accident. “It is something that means they’re most insensitive.”
Drivers as well complain they feel shunted aside by the agency in the aftermath of a fatal accidents, which often attract mobs that throw stones or set buses on fire.
“People came and caused chaos,” said H N Kumar, the driver who ran over Arundhati. “I was beaten up badly by the public and then I escaped and went to the police station…. I had to spend around Rs. 15,000 and Rs. 20,000 for my bail.”
As a policy, BMTC gives drivers an ex-gratia payment, too, for a criminal attorney but otherwise leaves them on their own.
Meanwhile, the agency launches its own probe. The central accident unit rushes to the scene to take measurements and photos examining the position of the body and signs of impact on the vehicle. This sets in motion an internal enquiry, overseen by a retired judge, to determine responsibility. A driver is found either “not at fault;” “also at fault” if he shares responsibility; or “at fault” if he is deemed fully responsible.
Those conclusions, along with proscribed punishments, are recorded by hand in a series of ledger books.
IIJNM reviewed notations for 500 fatal accidents over the last nine years; the number represents the majority of deadly crashes but not all, since many entries were incomplete.
The review showed that in more than 70 per cent of the 500 fatalities, BMTC drivers were judged “at fault”- a designation that various officials confirmed meant fully responsible. This was far greater than what a top BMTC official claimed in a presentation in late January, where he reported the rate to be 10 to 30 per cent.
The IIJNM study also showed that, contrary to assertions by Chief of Traffic Operations Vishwanath, fatal crashes are not isolated events for drivers. They are usually part of more problematic safety records that typically include major injury accidents and minor property damage mishaps.
Example: Shiva Kumar, who was held “at fault” for an April 2006 smash-up that claimed two lives and injured one. The incident has cost his employer Rs. 5.3 lakhs in court awards, with one lawsuit pending. It was his third fatal and eighth accident since 1999; he was at fault for all but one of them. (Click here to see Shiva Kumar’s driving record)
Kumar was dismissed, one of 35 drivers to be fired for causing fatal accidents since 2000.
That is 11 per cent of all drivers fully responsible.
The rest were returned to work after serving suspensions, ranging from days to up to six months, at half-pay. About half of the returning drivers were further penalised with one-time fines, cuts in their basic salary or being forced to forfeit raises—measures classified in BMTC’s Conduct and Discipline Regulations as “minor penalties.” BMTC drivers earn an average of Rs. 2,500 a month.
Another 25 per cent in the study were trainees who had their driving probation period extended for up to one year. Some 14 per cent, or 45 drivers, faced “censure” or verbal reprimands, the second lightest penalty in the rulebook.
In many of the cases, the punishments were no greater than for minor property damage accidents, also recorded in the daily logs.
Driver K Jagadesh received such dispensation after causing two deadly wrecks, records show. After his first accident, in March 1999, he was docked one month’s wages, taken over 10 installments to soften the blow. For his second accident, in July 2001, he received a censure.
“Warned to be careful in the future,” the hand-written entry said.
Sreehari, the Karnataka traffic expert, blamed political influence for the cumulative leniency. He said drivers often get members of the ruling party, the opposition, MLAs and even the political appointees to the BMTC board to intercede.
“I know there’s interference from politicians to keep them in the job,” said Sreehari, who declined to give details.
When asked if this were correct, Vishwanath terminated the interview with IIJNM.
S Manohar, Chief Law Officer, said he was unaware of any instances in which politicians intervened to put drivers back to work.
BMTC officials claim they have to take back drivers because they are acquitted in their criminal trials.
“A driver gets dismissed from the service after he is found ‘at fault,’ the court exonerates him from the charges, then we have to take him back,” said P.S. Sandhu, Director of Security, Vigilance and Environment.
“We take the drivers back only when the court directs us.”
But records show that only 10 “at fault” drivers were later exonerated in court.
“A driver is held responsible for the accident almost every time they go to court,” said Manohar, the Chief Law Officer. “It is very rare that they are acquitted in a court of law.”
BMTC drivers and depot managers blamed the time schedules they must follow for the rising number of accidents.
Shivappa, traffic controller of the Kengeri Depot, said the current timings were devised in 1983, before surveys show Bangalore traffic exploded by 600%. As an example, he pointed to a printed schedule that gave 90 minutes for a bus to make the route from Bidadi to K R Market on Mysore Road, a route of about 31 kilometres.
“It is really impossible with all the traffic to complete the trip within this time,” he said. “This has to change.”
“It is of my opinion that drivers are committing accidents only because of the time factor,” he added. “What these drivers do is that when they become conscious of the time, they overtake vehicles, drive rashly and they will end up in an accident.”
Vishwanath, the Chief Traffic Officer, said he adjusted routes six months ago, making it easier for drivers to meet their time targets by reducing stops and trimming a cumulative 30,000 kilometres.
Whatever the cause, the rising tide of all accidents is costing BMTC more than what most people know. In its annual report, the agency presents charts showing that it has lost 80 per cent of its accident-related court cases and paid more than Rs. 12 crores in judgments. (See graph)
Worried about the fiscal implications, agency stopped insuring itself in 2006 and assumed an outside policy to help whittle away at the awards in court, said Manohar. That policy with the United India Insurance Corporation costs BMTC an additional Rs. 8 crores a year, an expense not reflected in the charts.
Still, the financial consequences of fatal accidents is not enough to take a harder line against the responsible drivers, Manohar maintained.
“If we fire them, then we are firing an entire family,” he said. “This is a humanitarian consideration. I agree that the victims, too, have a family. So we have to balance things.”
Rafad Banu, who lost her 17-year-old son, said there is no way to balance, much less make up, for her loss.
The driver, B J Nataraju, was found “at fault” and put back to work on an extended training period. Banu, who lives in a Bangalore slum, accepted BMTC’s gesture of Rs. 15,000, then went on to win a court award of Rs. 2.25 lakh, which she had to split with her attorney.
What was left, she said, is far too little for her future needs, much less some sense of emotional compensation.
“They are only depositing money,” Banu said about BMTC. “But what’s the use? The life has been taken. What can we do or say? We cannot hurt them or kill them. We cannot take a life for a life.”