Karishma Jain, a law student at the Hosur Road-based Christ College travels by bus from her Sarjapur Road residence every day. Since Karishma does not know the local language, she says she initially found it very difficult to travel by bus as the destination boards were in Kannada. “I don’t know Kannada. But now I know the numbers and the bus routes”, she says, even as she just gets off a wrong bus, thinking it was going towards Agara through Sarjapur Road.
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Karishma is among the 40 lakh passengers of Bengaluru who use the BMTC bus services every day. The BMTC has around 5600 buses plying on the city roads. Of these only about 800 have Light Emitting Diode (LED) destination boards that display information in both Kannada and English, says P K Garg, Director (Projects), BMTC. The remaining 4800 buses have painted boards with information only in Kannada, some with no boards and some with wrong route information. For commuters like Karishma, who hails from Uttar Pradesh, the language and the lack of proper information on these boards pose a problem.
But Karnataka Transport Minister R Ashoka, in a telephone interview to Citizen Matters, says that “ordinary buses (which have painted destination boards only in Kannada) are used only by Kannada people”. Tell him that Bangalore is a cosmopolitan city and has a large migrant population who cannot read Kannada, he asks, “What do I do?”. He further adds that there are no plans to change these boards and make them bilingual. “Only the new buses will have LED”, he says.
For their part, BMTC drivers and conductors, who really ply the system and meet commuters every day, feel that it would be good to have bilingual boards. “For people outside it’s difficult. It’s only the new buses that are getting LED. These buses are old. People ask us what the route of the bus is. Most of these people are those who can’t read at all and others ask because they want to reconfirm the route”, says Conductor B G Siddaram. BMTC bus driver Madhukar M also says that the boards should have English and Kannada but feels that the old boards will not be changed.
In line with those views, the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) Staff and Workers Federation says it has raised this issue with BMTC officials on many occasions earlier, but nothing has come of it. Says H V Anantha Subbarao, General Secretary of the federation, “We have pointed to the concerned authorities. See, ultimately it’s for the public.” KSRTC Staff and Workers Federation is the state-level union for employees of KSRTC, BMTC and state-owned transport corporations elsewhere in Karnataka.
Subbarao says earlier, he used to receive complaints from commuters. “About a year back some people from Kolkata, who were in Bangalore, called me and told me. See, not much people complain. They should come up and speak. They should bring it to their notice. We’ll see, we’ll see if we can follow up now”, he adds.
Unsettled and lingering
The issue of language on destination boards of BMTC buses is not a new one. Indiranagar resident K V Pathy, a former member of the BMTC Commuter Comfort Task Force and who has been traveling by BMTC buses for the past four decades, also feels that the destination boards should be bilingual. “Some years back, Mr. P G R Sindhia, the then Transport Minister, took a team to UK for study. When he returned, I suggested that he should make the bus name boards like what he must have seen on London buses, very well visible, lighted, easy to read from a long distance. Even today this is not done”, he says.
BMTC set up the task force in September 2003 with various civil society representatives as its members to make policy recommendations on urban transport. Pathy says that the task force had recommended bilingual boards then. “It is only a basic requirement, among others that the route numbers should be of sufficiently large size, which can be at the centre of the board with the destination written on either side in English and Kannada, again in large letters with good lighting at night. The route numbers should be also provided at the entry to the bus in addition to front and back sides. Needless to say all numbers should be same”, he adds.
Like the Transport Minister, BMTC officials also say there are no plans to change the destination boards of the old buses. Garg says that someone or other raises the issue, from time to time. He calls it a ‘sensitive issue’. “It becomes difficult…Let it be as it is. As and when it comes, we will see. If I raise the issue, they’ll say you are from North (India), that’s why you are saying this”, says Garg.
Views from pro-Kannada groups
Former MLA Vatal Nagaraj of the Kannada Chalavali Vatal Paksha says that the Kannada-only boards must not be changed and those who live in the city should learn the language. “Kannada language should prosper. This is Karnataka state. Kannada is the state language. Those who come here should learn Kannada”, he says. In the same vein, he says he is not opposed to the new bilingual LED boards for the higher-end buses and ‘accepts’ that as the government’s decision.
M Narasimha, Secretary, Udayabhanu Kalasangha, a volunteer-based literary, cultural and social organization, however, is not opposed to the bilingual signs for the regular buses. “Let English and Kannada be there, no problem. But Kannada should come first”, he says.
But even citizens who know the local language find it difficult to read the Kannada boards. Engineering student Veena S, who travels between HSR Layout and KR Market everyday, says, “I find it difficult to read Kannada fast. It would be good to have both English and Kannada”.
The state government is looking to promote public transport in Bangalore. The higher-end buses – Big 10, Vayu Vajra, and Suvarna — all run with bilingual electronic destination boards, and meanwhile the principal fleet of “ordinary” buses are stuck with their painted (only) Kannada boards. With Transport Minister R Ashoka stating matter-of-factly that these buses are used only by Kannada people, the Karishmas and Veenas amongst the 40 lakh bus users in the city will certainly not be amused.