When I was a child, I was fascinated by all sorts of vehicles. Apparently, my parents went through hell trying to buy me a toy bulldozer. I used to fantasize about cars which had 5 inch armour plating, with headlights that could blind people and which could shoot missiles (partly inspired by the BMW in Tomorrow Never Dies, but my car was way cooler because I had no limit to my imagination). All this fascination led to a talk about faster & meaner cars with Dad. He told me cars have only 4 wheels and thus aren’t all that great. He told me he knew about a 6 wheel monster and said I could even ride on one. Excited, I begged for the ride. Tongue in cheek as ever, he took me on a bus.
Buses are usually the commonest form of public transport. And in an over-populated country like India, they tend to be usually over crowded. I’ve relied on buses almost all my life to get around, with the exception of MRTS in Chennai.
The worst bus I’ve ever been on was in Greater Noida. I had spent a couple of months there and belonging to the category of population which can only wistfully stare at people owning motor-cycles or cars, I had to rely on buses. UPSRTC has the worst buses in India. They look like they are held together by Fevicol. It is a wonder they can move. Yet, they are loaded beyond capacity and people overflow out of every opening available. And, they are unbelievably filthy. People spit all the time, and their missiles do not always manage to clear the window grilles. An anti-tetanus shot is recommended after a ride on this absolutely terrible (I am unable to find adjectives to voice my disgust) vehicle. I had a brief ride in a Delhi bus once, and I have to say it was alright. Buses are fairly decent.
I had visited Ahmedabad recently, but wasn’t able to travel by bus. I did observe some of them from a distance. I was able to note that the boards were in Gujrati and the buses, though appearing a bit ramshackle, were quite alright.
Kerala has a mixture of buses. In Ernakulam, where I’ve spent 7 years, private buses own the road. I suppose being in a red bus gives the driver a feeling that he is in a Ferrari. The bus drivers zip along the narrowest of lanes at breakneck speeds. Also, the boards are in Malayalam, which will confound an outsider. They have some numbers on the boards,but they make no sense whatsoever. They also have a habit of going on strike every two months to hike the fare. These buses have two cleaners (Kilis) who hang out of the bus doors either ringing bells or blowing whistles to make the bus stop or move, two conductors and the driver. Five employees on a not so large bus! And the bus operators grumble about making ends meet.
Farther south in Quilon & Trivandrum, the private operators and the KSRTC have an equal share (KSRTC has a bigger share in Trivandrum). Again, there is no number system. What I have noticed is that KSRTC mainly runs inter-city buses. The buses used to be terrible, but the KSRTC has spent some money in acquiring some good buses recently. The Garuda service (A Volvo) from Trivandrum to Calicut is excellent.
Bangalore has a decent bus service, but the traffic makes a bus journey horrible. They have introduced a few new buses with electronic ticker tape boards, but yet again, they are all in Kannada. Luckily they have a number system, so you can always ask around to find your route. The driver sometimes doubles as a conductor and collects the fare himself! The fare is frightfully expensive. I’ve paid Rs.10 for just a short distance. And it was just an old ugly bus. I’m not sure if I was cheated. But their all-day pass is value for money.
Bus service in Southern Tamil Nadu is decent, but it tends to be fairly crowded. Both private and state run buses ply. One characteristic about people who travel in buses here, is that they seem to constantly munch on something or the other. The bus stands are crowded with vendors who sell gram, cucumber, raw-mango, peanuts and other fried stuff. Undoubtedly,some of this finds its way to the floor of the bus. Another amazing thing about private buses is that almost all of them have TVs blaring Tamil Music. Not one, not two, but upto six! All placed in staggered fashion so that everyone can watch no matter where they are seated. They also tend to resemble a Christmas tree at night, with all sorts of coloured lights flashing all over the bus, inside and outside.
I’ve saved the best for the last. The best bus service I’ve seen so far is undoubtedly in Chennai. The MTC has done a commendable job since the days of the rickety Pallavan buses. Most of the buses are new, and the old ones are being phased out. The new Tata Marcopolos are also splendid. The MTC has equipped some buses with GPS so that its exact location can be tracked from GPRS enabled mobiles. They have installed electronic ticker-tapes in bus-stops which give expected arrival of the next bus. They also have a customer care numbers (9445030516, 9383337639) which can be used for complaints. An interesting experience is provided here. Also, the fares are very reasonable. The minimum fare on an ordinary bus is just Rs.2.50. I doubt if any other state offers such low fares. There is also the all-day pass for Rs.30 which entitles you to board any bus (except the AC ones) upto 10 PM without purchasing any further tickets. I once abused this pass by going all around Chennai with a friend.
I am yet to try out the BEST service or try out buses in other countries. As Calvin’s dad would say, travelling in a crowded bus builds character. If you haven’t been crushed in a crowded bus, you have seen nothing of life.
I will admit that I detest travelling inter-city on buses. I can never sleep on them. But I find them a very cheap and efficient system of transport (in Chennai).
Go ahead. Board a bus that goes some place you haven’t been, travel in it till it reaches its terminus, and get back. You might learn something new.