Late on Thursday evening, five-year-old Ayesha became the 53rd person to be fatally knocked down by a Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) bus this year. While enough fingers have been pointed at errant drivers, congested roads and a culture of complacency, the issue of inadequate maintenance of MTC buses hardly gets any attention.

Though the accident on Thursday was primarily because the driver jumped a traffic signal and sped into the bus bay at the Central railway station, perhaps fatalities could have been prevented if the bus had enough braking power.

P.Bhagawanth, who has been an MTC driver for the past 30 years, says a majority of MTC buses operate at 35-40 per cent braking efficiency, as against a requirement of 70 per cent. Lack of attention to wear and tear and a reliance on locally made cheaper spare-parts are the reasons.

The MTC fleet of 3,421 buses is a physical asset which is worth over Rs.570 crore. The market value of just the AC buses in the fleet is around Rs.100 crore. But due to a lack of maintenance, many of these assets are rapidly depreciating in value. While broken seats and windowpanes do not pose an accident hazard, the larger question is: are taxpayers getting the quality of service that they paid for?

P.Rajendran, general secretary of the Anna Thozhir Sangam, an MTC workers' union, says that many of the new buses will not even last three years if maintenance systems are not improved. The normal lifespan of a bus is eight years or a running distance of eight lakh km, whichever comes first.

“A use and throw system is being adopted. Also, city buses require additional maintenance as they carry 200 passengers sometimes, against a capacity of 75, and undergo a lot of wear and tear,” he says.

There is also an acute shortage of personnel, says Mr.Rajendran. Despite procuring more than 1,000 buses under the JNNURM scheme in 2009, MTC has not hired any technical staff for a long time. The technical staff to vehicle ratio is about 0.8, while it should have been 1.25. “There is just no attention to maintenance. In depots where there should be 15 mechanics, there are only two. Even cosmetic activities such as basic sweeping and brushing are not done regularly,” he adds.

No wonder then that commuters such as D. Chandramouli feel that the buses are never cleaned. “It is a shame. Can't they at least clean the buses at various intervals, whenever they complete a trip?” he asks.

The city also faces an acute shortage of buses. In order to tide over the problem, almost every available bus is “sent on the line”. According to norms, at least 10 per cent of the fleet must be kept as spare so that maintenance work can be undertaken.

In 2009 when new buses were procured through Central government assistance, the MTC gave assurances to provide necessary infrastructure modification in depots to suit new generation buses, procure modern tools and equipment, devise suitable outsourcing policies and improve passenger convenience by maintaining cleanliness and upkeep.

Many of those have remained just promises. However, senior MTC officials say that passengers who manage to break unbreakable items are also to blame.

“Commuters must also learn to respect and use public amenities in a better way. Apart from that, either the ticket price must be increased or some kind of operational subsidy has to be given to fund regular maintenance activities. Just the average salary expenditure per bus per day is about Rs.3,000 and we are unable to recover the cost,” he said.

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