Dying Delhi Transport Corporation

DTC buses parked at the Shadipur depot.   | Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

The pulse of the Capital’s proverbial ‘lifeline’, the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC), is growing fainter by the day. Not just its survival, but even the legacy of the DTC seems to be at stake.

The public transporter’s fleet has contracted to its lowest in over a decade with financial losses mounting each year as new privately owned cluster buses, being engaged by the government, gradually edge out thousands of its ailing buses on Delhi’s streets.

Last week, visuals of low-floor DTC buses being inundated while wading through waterlogged city streets and commuters being forced to rely on umbrellas to avoid leaking roofs exemplify the state of its existing fleet.

As the Delhi government pursues its ambition of commandeering the largest fleet of electric buses in the country under the cluster scheme, it stands to lose the distinction of having held sway over the biggest fleet of CNG-propelled public buses in the world since 2008.

In response to an RTI query from The Hindu, the Transport Department stated the number of cluster buses has shot up from zero in 2010 to 3,240 till July 31, 2021, while the DTC’s strength dipped from 6,342 to 3,760.

Though it may appear to be in the lead at the moment in terms of numbers, the ailing DTC is actually set to lose that race to cluster buses sooner rather than later, perhaps for good.

Dying Delhi Transport Corporation

‘Overaged’ DTC

DTC Operational Statistics for August 2019 accessed by The Hindu state 3,764 or 99.16% of the DTC’s fleet on August 31, 2019, was “overaged” since it was “more than eight years old”. They also noted that the average age of the different makes of buses on the fleet ranged from 8.9 to 10 years.

The department, during the monsoon session of the Delhi Assembly, submitted that the DTC’s fleet stood at 3,760 of which only 32 buses were aged between 8 to 12 years while the rest, 3,728, were aged above 10 years, subtly admitting that an overwhelming majority of it was redundant.

In June this year, 1,000 low-floor buses being procured for the DTC for the first time since 2008 were supposed to start rolling out. But the process has been stalled due to allegations of corruption and will now be investigated by the CBI.

The new buses were being procured for ₹875 crore with an additional amount of around ₹3,412 crore pledged towards a 12-year-long annual maintenance contract (AMC). While the Opposition BJP alleged irregularities in the amount for maintenance, the government retorted it had in fact saved ₹225 crore on annual maintenance in the process.

According to the RTI response, the DTC provisionally spent a little less than it had committed for the procurement of 1,000 new low-floor buses on the maintenance of its fleet of 3,762 buses in 2019-20: ₹817.27 crore was spent on maintenance, including the cost of CNG, in 2019-20.

City routes

The operational statistics also noted that the number of city routes being operated by the DTC fell from 556 in 2009-10 to 437 in 2018-19; NCR routes plummeted from 44 to just 8.

There had, according to the statistics, also been 11,768 breakdowns of buses of various makes and running on different routes in August 2019. The Economic Survey of Delhi 2020-21 noted 780 breakdowns per 10,000 buses during 2017-18, 781 in 2018-19 and 880 in 2019-20.

“The DTC’s position is similar to a patient in ICU. We don’t know precisely what medicines to prescribe; all we know is that the patient needs to be revived as soon as possible,” said Professor P.K. Sarkar, road safety expert and member of Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS-ISO).

“We need to create a unified transport authority which consists of experts monitoring the city’s transport sector round the clock. Route rationalisation and increasing existing bus fare need to be considered urgently,” Professor Sarkar added.

History on wheels

With its roots in one of the earliest decisions of the first government of independent India in 1948, the Delhi Transport Service had several transformations over 74 years before being forged into the iconic DTC.

Transporting about 33 lakh passengers over 6.41 lakh km per day on about 448 city and seven NCR routes, the DTC operates 30,562 average trips daily and is considered the largest transport service provider in the National Capital Region (NCR).

It has ventured well beyond the NCR, too. It was aboard a DTC bus belonging to the Sada-e-Sarhad or Delhi-Lahore service that then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee travelled to Lahore for an eponymous summit in 1999.

Ten years later, in 2010, DTC buses ferried foreign athletes to and from stadia on exclusive lanes during the Commonwealth Games.

A decade later, DTC buses were transporting migrant workers to safety during the national COVID lockdown in addition to oxygen supplies and medical professionals during successive waves of the COVID-19 infection in 2020.

Electric buses

The transport department is in the process of engaging 300 electric buses and is scheduled to float another tender for the engagement of 465 more electric buses soon.

This will push the fleet of privately owned buses being operated on a PPP model by the government to 4,005 against the DTC’s fleet of 3,760, soon.

The cluster scheme is based on the gross-cost model (OPEX) where fleet owners are remunerated on the basis of operational parameters irrespective of the fare box inflow.

By 2019-20, according to the Economic Survey of Delhi 2020-21, 2,910 cluster buses were ferrying 17.71 lakh passengers on 14 clusters. As many as 556 of these were registered in 2019; 750, the highest number of cluster buses to be registered in any year since 2010, were added to the fleet in 2020.

Unions of employees — both permanent and contractual — part of the public transporter’s workforce as well as the political opposition allege that the goings on are part of the “subtle privatisation of the DTC”.

“The government wants to kill the DTC so that all its depots and official property located on prime land can be handed over to private players for a profit,” alleged Kailash Chand Malik of the Delhi Parivahan Mazdoor Sangh.

“The daily bus pass, the most popular pass among commuters, can’t be used on cluster buses. Most cluster buses are also non-air conditioned. The DTC, which has been synonymous with Delhi since the beginning, is dying a quiet but painful death,” he added.

Manoj Sharma of the DTC Karamchari Ekta Union alleged the DTC was “getting a bad name” due to the rash driving of overworked cluster bus drivers.

Rash driving and salary

“Their drivers are private employees who need to toil for 18 to 20 hours a day to cover 150 km so they can earn around ₹25,000 as monthly salary. In the process, they end up driving rashly,” he alleged. Transport Department sources said cluster buses were found to be involved in around 20 accidents per year over the last two years.

“DTC buses transported migrant workers, doctors and even oxygen during the COVID pandemic. How many private operators will step forward to provide the service the DTC has and does on a daily basis despite the condition of the fleet?” he said.

However, those associated with the AAP-led Delhi government’s purported bid to revive the sector in the Capital feel otherwise.

“The engagement of buses is the only way forward. Not just the DTC, but most other government departments suffer issues because of the tendering process. Why should the commuters of Delhi suffer because buses cannot be bought for one reason or another,” asked Pravesh Biyani, Associate Professor, Centre for Sustainable Mobility, IIIT-D.

Professor Biyani is working with the Delhi government on streamlining the Capital’s transportation sector. “We need reforms in the tendering process. The DTC may be in the condition that it is at the moment, but has good operational capacity otherwise,” he added.

Legacy vs utility

The DTC’s possible demise in the 74th year since its inception, former Delhi Transport Minister Ajay Maken of the Congress pointed out, would snatch the distinction of having the biggest fleet of CNG-propelled public buses in the world since 2008 from Delhi.

Former Leader of Opposition in the Delhi Assembly and Rohini BJP MLA Vijender Gupta, who filed the complaint alleging graft in the AMC component of the 1,000 DTC low-floor buses, questioned the intentions of the government.

“It was during my tenure that the entire fleet of the DTC was made to switch over to CNG; that legacy seems to be at risk,” Mr. Maken said. “Without adequate bus infrastructure, what can wean commuters to public transport from their preference for personal vehicles,” he asked.

“The fact that the government spent ₹800 crore towards the maintenance of close to 4,000 DTC buses in 2019-20 and was willing to commit almost three times this amount for the AMC of just 1,000 new buses says it all,” Mr. Gupta alleged.

Revival bid

“The committee constituted by L-G Anil Baijal after my complaint too has directed that the AMC bid for ₹3,412 crore be cancelled and floated afresh. The government failed to revive the DTC, so is now trying to subtly privatise it and use it for corrupt practices till it can,” he added.

Professor Sarkar said though there was no other option than letting private buses operate for the time being, this needed to be allowed under intense scrutiny. For the DTC, there was a need to act decisively and soon.

“Privately owned buses can operate till the DTC gets its own buses but under intense scrutiny. If there is will, expertise and muscle, the DTC can not only be revived but converted into the best public transport service not only in India but the world,” Professor Sarkar added.

Govt. response

The last purchase of new buses in the DTC, the Delhi government said, was undertaken in 2008 and the last bus under that order was inducted in the DTC fleet in October 2011.

“Since then, we’ve been constantly floating tenders but have not been successful. The tenders were floated twice in the year 2013, then in the years 2014, 2018, 2019 and 2020. In spite of this, we have 300 electric buses being inducted in the DTC which will start arriving in the next two months,” said a senior transport department official.

Delhi is mandated to go to single-fuel mode, CNG-propelled buses. The Supreme Court has mandated that Delhi induct only fully disabled-friendly low-floor buses as well as only air-conditioned buses.

“Buses are to be manufactured against the specific work order for requirement of Delhi. Such specified buses are not purchased by any other State except Delhi,” the official said, adding that only three vehicle manufacturers were available to fulfil all these mandatory conditions.

A Delhi government spokesperson alleged it was the BJP which had derailed the induction of 1,000 buses. “The BJP does not want induction of buses by the DTC,” the spokesperson alleged.

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Printable version | Oct 18, 2021 4:22:18 PM |

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