The other day I was having a rather interesting conversation/debate with some of my colleagues and friends which I thought was worth reporting here. This was a conversation about equity in Bangalore’s BMTC buses. My friends were analyzing equity and accessibility in BMTC buses. Somehow the conversation veered towards the topic of Volvo buses and whether the city needs different kinds of buses, and this is where there was a sharp difference of opinion between my friends’ thoughts and my own.
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My friends were of the opinion that there shouldn’t be different kinds of buses for different kinds of people. By creating different kinds of buses, the BMTC was in fact perpetuating a class difference (maybe not intentionally, but what happened was that rich people only traveled by Volvo buses, and the poor were relegated to travel by the regular buses).
They also mentioned that on routes on which Volvos and regular buses plied, it had been noticed that there were a far more number of Volvos which were running compared to regular buses forcing commuters who could not afford the Volvo service to either miss buses because they were too crowded or hang on to buses thereby endangering their lives. They were of the opinion that rather than a very exclusive Volvo service and a rather poor regular bus service, what was required was a universally good bus service which was equitable and accessible to all and more importantly which did not differentiate between classes.
My opinion was that by having multiple classes of buses, BMTC was catering to multiple audiences and in fact getting the middle class who would have otherwise have traveled by cars and/or 2 wheelers to shift to public transport. And the reason why they did so was because of the comfort factor. The other reason why I probably supported a Volvo service was because I used that service pretty frequently and had found it comfortable myself. I argued that there cannot be a ‘one size fits all’ policy and thus the need for Volvo buses. Also, the higher fares got from Volvo buses could be used to cross-subsidize fares for the regular buses (my friends tell me that in fact the exact opposite of this is happening, that the fares from regular buses are being used to subsidize the fares for Volvo buses) .
However when I went back home and the more and more I thought about it, their argument seemed to make a lot of sense. As a child of the eighties and the nineties, I don’t think that any Indian city had air conditioned buses. This was especially true of Bombay where I’m from and I’m reasonably sure this was true in Bangalore as well. Yet the buses were well maintained and used by all classes alike. The fares were modest and did not affect the family budget all that much.
True, people may have wanted better bus services, but as long as the basic service was of a certain acceptable quality, people were relatively satisfied. The new trend of having A/C buses has certainly caught the fancy of the middle class and the authorities too seem to be encouraging them as it gets them more visibility and more revenue ( though I’m not too sure about the revenue part).
So coming back to the question of whether a city like Bangalore requires one kind of bus service or different kinds of bus services. There is probably not one answer to this question. However I’m absolutely convinced that all people should have access to a good bus service and that they should not be forced to travel in an inferior quality bus just because they could not afford the better quality bus service.
At the same time I think that Volvo buses are here to stay and any decision to do away with them would not be too wise. Thus one option would be to upgrade city buses to offer the level of comfort being offered by Volvo buses (this of course should be done over a period of time).
Considering the fact that the government is spending huge sums of money on infrastructure/transportation and that there is more than sufficient funding coming via JNNURM, this option is very possible. The fares should be affordable to all sections of society, and for all those who say that fares have to be kept real (read high) for the bus service to remain viable, please remember that the bus service can be sustainable and achieve profits as well through volumes, rather than concentrating on margins which is what I suspect is the order of the day.
I look forward to the day when we have good/great quality buses which are universally accessible with affordable fares.⊕