'At Work' is a weekly column that takes a peak at people with unique professions, their living patterns and the changes the calling has seen in the years.
Around 1.25 p.m. on August 18, squad 99 of the Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) gets an alert on its wireless to rush towards Parrys Corner. The shift is almost over. But for the next two hours, the four-member team, known to the control room as ‘Mike 25,' is involved in diverting buses. It was the law college students' strike which paralysed parts of north Chennai.
That is one of the many unknown facets of the MTC's ticket checking squads. “Though a squad checks about 45 buses on average during an eight-hour shift, their primary responsibility is not to prevent revenue leakage,” according to S. Ganesan, a checking inspector in squad 99.
They have to see if the driver stops the bus at the right place, check if conductors are issuing tickets properly, monitor traffic violations by MTC drivers, make sure autorickshaws do not crowd around bus bays and ensure that buses are running as per schedule.
A squad has about 15 to 20 seconds to do all of that every time a bus approaches a stop. They are also supposed to help commuters in case of a bus breakdown.
Many commuters may question their effectiveness, but then there are only about 200 checking inspectors, split into 50 squads, for the whole city.
With the MTC extending its operational limits to 50 km, R. Kanakasabai, a checking inspector, says, “The control room will have to be informed of our location every one hour. We cover 80 to 100 km on an eight-hour shift. Besides, commuters expect us not to check during the morning or evening rush hour and at night. Getting abused by someone is part of work. We try to do what we can under the limitations.”
When he joined the MTC as a conductor 29 years ago, there used to be one bus every 30 minutes on a particular route. Now, on average, there is one every five minutes. Population and vehicle count have vastly expanded. Pachaiyappa's College was on my route, he says. “Students used to give me gifts on ‘Bus Day.' Now they break buses.”
Mr. Kanakasabai acknowledges that some MTC drivers do violate traffic signals, “but they are under a lot of tension,” he says. Mistakes are not judged according to the rule book. “We take a nuanced approach,” he adds.
The fine of Rs.500 for ticketless travelling is also rarely collected. Many are let off for Rs.50 or Rs.100. “Some of the offenders are old women or sick people,” says S. Thomas, another ticket checker.
Referring to cases in which people board the bus to the railway station with just a few hundred rupees in their pockets as unfortunate, he adds, “The fine amount is just to create moral fear. It is rarely collected.”
P. Mohan Raj, a ticket checker, recalls how he had to walk from Doveton to Broadway in 1979 because “I did not have 30 paise for the bus fare”. I know the pain, he says. He joined the MTC in 1980. Thirty years on, strictly enforcing the rules would mean forcing someone else to walk.