As he waits at the bus stop in South Chennai’s Dhandee-swaram, Perumal, a plumber-painter in his mid-forties, is visibly impatient. “I’ve been waiting here for about 40 minutes now, but my bus hasn’t turned up,” he says. From Tamil Nadu’s Salem district, Perumal came to Chennai a few years ago looking for a better living. “Here, I get better payments and better clients,” Perumal smiles wryly as he wipes his sweaty face.

“But the transport bothers me a lot,” he says. Stationed in the buzzing suburb of Velachery, Perumal scouts for work in areas nearby. He relies on the buses of the Metropolitan Transport Corporation of Chennai. The meagre income he earns does not allow Perumal to board buses that could cost him more than usual , such the MTC’s deluxe or AC buses. He is waiting for a ‘whiteboard’ (ordinary) bus, which has the lowest fare rates in Chennai — ₹5. “Often, I wait fairly long for a whiteboard A51 (the bus that takes him to where he works these days, somewhere near Chennai Central railway station),” he says. “There is no clarity on when most buses arrive. We take their late arrivals and absence for granted.”

Thousands of miles away, in Delhi, K Chanda, who uses buses for daily commute, agrees. “They don’t arrive at predictable times; and there is the issue of cleanliness.” The 64-year-old gets sick when she travels in buses, as she is exposed to the high pollution levels of Delhi. “It would be better if they showed the bus arrival times and routes on electric boards at bus stands. To deal with potential vandalism, they can cover the display boards with alarms,” ideates Chanda, based on her bus travel experiences abroad.

Several commuters BusinessLine spoke to in Chennai have complained of the lack of frequency of buses with low fares. “I am told that their share has been shrinking, even though the government keeps saying bus fares have been kept affordable for the poor,” says Nagaraj, a commuter from Pallikaranai who works in Porur. “The suburban train fare is well-suited for low-income workers like us, but not every place is connected by trains,” he adds.

“There is no shortage of low-fare buses,” says an MTC spokesperson. “The ratio (of low and high fare buses) is well-balanced and Chennai has one of the lowest travel fares in comparison with neighbouring States.” The official adds that the transport corporation is in fact adding more buses and routes, enabling people, including low-income workers, to travel at ease. Urban transport experts, however, point towards the dearth of buses.

Missing buses

“Even though MTC buses are overcrowded and the quality of service is poor, they continue to be the backbone of Chennai’s travel needs, with an incredible 4.7 million people using them daily,” says Aswathy Dilip, Senior Programme Manager, Institute of Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) in Chennai. “The city has a short fall of about 2,000 buses according to national service level benchmarks,” she adds.

“Affordable and efficient transport form the crux of urban planning,” says S Saroja, Director-Consumer Protection at Chennai’s Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group. “Factors such as more buses and improved last-mile connectivity play a critical role in making the city habitable, especially for the poor and working class.”

“Though the MTC plays a critical role in moving people across Chennai, it is a loss-making entity. The reduction of whiteboard buses may be a result of action to increase earnings. Farebox should not be the only source to bridge the gap between earnings and expenditure,” says Aswathy of ITDP.

Workers such as Perumal and Nagaraj complain that their earnings took a hit when fares went up in January 2018. “I used to travel long distances, to places such as Avadi and beyond, in search of jobs,” says Perumal. “But when fares went up, coupled with shortage of low-fare buses, I was forced to spend ₹150-200 on commuting, and for someone like me, who earns about ₹600-800 a day, that was unbearable, so I stopped going out of city limits for work.”

“Only 5-10 per cent of people take trains inside the city, the rest depend on buses and share-autos,” says V Rama Rao, activist and director of Traffic and Transportation Forum, a city-based rights group. “Urban transport is not helping the poor and working class now,” he says. “Take the Chennai Metro for instance,” he reasons, “It is exorbitant even for a middle-class commuter. And if a worker, say a plumber or electrician, wants to take it, his tools and gears will not be allowed inside,” he says. “We need a dedicated bus-lane.”

According to Rao, this is one of the many aspects of urban planning that go unnoticed. “In a way, our city transport infrastructure is by default anti-working people,” he says. He adds that last-mile connectivity is also an issue for those who use trains and the Metro, be it in Chennai, Bengaluru or Delhi. The high capital cost of the Metro translates into higher fares for about 20 years . It becomes more a middle-class option. In Bengaluru, it has been commonly observed that the frequency of buses has dropped, particularly after 8 pm. Bengaluru bus fares are high, on a par or perhaps higher than the cost of driving a two wheeler. Commuters believe that this scarcity has helped Ola and Uber, besides auto-rickshaw drivers.

In Delhi, several commuters feel that buses are more frequent in Central Delhi and Lutyens’ Delhi and less in the outer circles, or satellite towns of the city. And more buses do not necessarily mean the cities are more crowded. “A myth around buses is that they add to the congestion on roads. A bus, while thrice the size of a car, carries 30 times more passengers during the course of a day in a typical Indian city. While cars occupy most of our street space, they serve less than a fourth of all trips,” says ITDP’s Aswathy.

With inputs from Mamuni Das in Delhi