The Union Territory of J&K is the northern terminal territory of the country and is mostly hilly and mountainous. Road transport has always been a problem here. Though the conditions have improved now, there were times when boarding a bus or lorry, as it was then called, was not easy. The public transport system came into being somewhere in 1919, when only a few buses plied on the Jehlum Valley Road and Banihal Cart Road which were then used mainly for carrying mails. With the passage of time many transport companies were formed and the Indian Motor Vehicle Act regulated their work and issued route permits for them. Subsequently after independence, a Govt Transport Undertaking (GTU) was established and with the addition of many more vehicles and manpower to the system, a full-fledged corporation called State Road Transport Corporation came into being, supplemented by a number of private transport companies which exist even today with a large fleet and robust network of road connectivity. These buses now cover even the remote and hitherto inaccessible areas and villages of the valley.
The arrival of the first bus in our village in late fifties caused much excitement and amusement and everyone was curious to welcome and receive it in a befitting manner. Till now people used to cover long distances on foot, for which elaborate preparation had to be made in advance. Several pairs of shoes made of wisp of grass, called Pulhuru, were made to cover the journey. The worn out pulhurus had to be replaced by a new one en route. The old, sick and infirm had to be carried on one’s back. Life was indeed very hard in such conditions of no road connectivity.
It was, therefore, a moment of great joy and celebration when word spread that a bus was arriving in our village. Little did the people know about a bus then. Someone brought a bundle of hay of grass for the bus to eat while some other brought a woollen quilt for the bus to rest on. Songs were sung in praise of it. It was named Mukka Bus, as it was not having any face and was flat at the front and rear.
“Mukka bus aaye pakh wayan te Lolo,
Jann wandyu haa Jaanaan Lolo”
The bus ran at the proper time daily and the conductor demanded bus fare from the passengers. Those who could not afford him to pay in cash, paid him in kind. They took a few eggs in their pockets instead of cash and gave them to the conductor in lieu of the fare, which the conductor gladly accepted.
The bus also carried the goods of passengers on top of it. The loading and unloading of these goods from the bus took time and the bus got usually delayed to the chagrin of other passengers. To control the protests of the passengers over the delay, the driver of the bus thought of a novel idea. On stopping his bus for loading or unloading, he narrated some interesting story, usually a filmy one, to the passengers who listened to it with rapt attention, forgetting about the delay of the bus. While travelling in such buses the passengers interacted with each other on a variety of topics, such as social, political and religious ones.
There was a huge gap between the capacity of the bus and the number of passengers, which resulted in overloading. Those who could not manage to board the bus were left behind. Some even clung to the doors of the bus, cracking jokes at those left behind. Bus operators nowadays face tough competition from Sumos, mini buses, three-wheelers and other cabs. The first choice of an average passenger, however, continues to be a passenger bus.
The continued imposition of lockdowns due to corona pandemic has hit the transport industry and brought the bus operators to a point where they are forced to forsake their profession and take up other work to sustain their families. Their buses remain off the roads for months together but even then they have to pay the token taxes and vehicle insurance, etc. The condition has further deteriorated due to frequent shutdowns and the disturbed conditions in the valley. The bad condition of the roads has added to the wear and tear and to the cost of maintenance of the vehicles. The cost of the spare parts as also that of fuel has escalated. The fall in tourist inflow has further deteriorated their bad financial condition. There is as such a constant demand from transporters for hike in fares and relief packages from the government.
Modernisation of buses is much needed so that these can face the competition from other means of transport. Proper facilities need to be provided to the passengers on the lines of railways. Double decker buses with sleepers should be introduced and a network of workshops established on highways at proper places. Heating and cooling gadgets as also catering facilities and first-aid boxes are also required to be provided in every bus. The bus drivers and the conductors need to be imparted regular trainings in order to familiarise them with traffic rules and public relations.
Whenever I happen to visit any bus stop, I am reminded of the time when the first bus had arrived in my village decades ago and the song then recited by villagers:
“Mouk bus aaye pakh wayaan te Lolo-
Jaan wandiyo ha Jaanaan Lolo”
—The writer is a retired telecom engineer and the author of the book, ‘Footprints in the Sand’