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A Bus Ride in Kolkata

Prerna Dhoop (prerna.dhoop@gmail.com) teaches law at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad.

This illustrative bus journey shows the many ways in which public transport in Kolkata is exclusionary.

I was heading home after attending a lecture on the “Capabilities Approach,” which is a theoretical framework used to measure the quality of human life and to assess government programmes. It focuses on the basic question: What is an individual actually “able to do and to be” with the resources and services available? The Capabilities Approach does not begin with the presumption that a “fair distribution of resources among the population necessarily leads to a good life for one and all.” Rather, it closely looks at the contingencies that hamper the conversion of resources and facilities into actual usage and real outcomes for the public.

It was an exceptionally hot summer evening. I stood at the bus stop pondering over the Capabilities Approach, waiting for an air-conditioned public bus. The Government of West Bengal under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) had introduced big, airy, state-of-the-art buses in the city a few years ago, having comfortable seats with more leg space, large glass windows and low footboards, in order to transform public transportation in Kolkata as well as provide comfortable and safe travel options for the urban commuter. Recently, the government has sought more funds under the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) for further developing public transport and building sustainable infrastructure and modern facilities in the city.

After a long wait, on seeing an air-conditioned Calcutta Transport Corporation (CTC) bus approach the bus stop, I sighed with relief. On noticing the rush, I immediately wore my backpack on my chest just to add an extra layer of protection as I got on the bus. I frantically waited for the next stop when a few passengers would disembark. And, when that happened, I courageously made my way to the middle of the bus. I looked around to find if any seats were reserved for women. To my utter dismay, there were none!

The driver was seated comfortably in his assigned seat that displayed the label “Pilot.” His driving justified the description as he sped through the evening hour applying brakes that sent shock waves along the crowded bus. Although the driver successfully broke the monotony among the passengers, he also invited stern warnings from them. I remembered how my cousin had lost balance in a speeding bus, tripped over and broken her incisor. I tried very hard myself to maintain my inertia that evening.

As I was paying for my ticket, the conductor suspiciously looked at the passenger standing beside me. The man was shabbily dressed and smelt strongly of sweat and tobacco. He was avoiding the conductor who shouted at once, “Will your father pay for your travel or the chief minister? Don’t travel in an air-conditioned bus if you can’t afford it, get off the bus now. Comfortable travel is not for the poor!” The passenger’s face turned red, he stared at the floor and didn’t move at all. Somehow he gathered himself, picked up his jute bag with a broken zip and scuttled to the front end of the bus. He whispered something to the driver, who nodded, smiled wryly, and stopped the bus. The passenger had succumbed to the public insult.

The bus halted at the next stop when a few other passengers alighted. Two policemen in uniform boarded the bus followed by a group of chirpy, heavily dressed transgender persons. No sooner did the conductor notice the transgender group than he raised an alarm to stop the bus. Expressing his discomfort, he shouted, “Get off the bus, it is already very crowded, we can’t accommodate you all.” The senior most member in the group responded, “We aren’t travelling for free, we will pay for our tickets, we won’t get down.” The conductor reacted strongly, “The bus is full already. This isn’t for the likes of you, ‘Double Decker.’ Get down now, don’t create nuisance.” The transgender persons kept reasoning with the conductor and even took out money to buy the tickets, but he did not budge an inch. Shockingly, the two policemen joined the conductor in evicting them from the “public” bus.

A group of college students argued with the conductor that they were entitled to receive student concession when travelling in public transport. The latter reasoned that student concessions were not available in air-conditioned buses. Sulking on losing the argument with the conductor, the students pooled in, penny by penny, just enough money to pay for all their tickets. Further on, the policemen commanded the driver to stop the bus midway and alighted like princes from their royal carriage. Needless to say, the men in uniform regularly enjoyed free and convenient travel in public transport. Overall, most passengers looked relieved as the air conditioning in the bus dried their sweat and cooled them. Meanwhile, a middle-aged man seated beside a woman with a baby constantly gaped at her breasts while she fed her wailing baby. Despite eliciting cold looks from her, he remained as unmoved as a rock.

A handful of passengers got down at the next stop. I spotted a vacant seat and dashed towards it. But, before I could place my tired self on it there stood between the seat and me a profusely sweating old woman. I at once held myself back. At that very moment, a middle-aged man appeared from nowhere like a flash of lightning, shoved the old woman and grabbed the vacant seat. The old woman looked at that man with hopeful eyes. Once he had plonked himself comfortably on the coveted seat and gathered the woman’s intentions, he loudly remarked, “You should avail the seat reserved for senior citizens. As it is, you seem to advantage from being a woman as well as a senior citizen.” He continued as if addressing a gathering, “Is this what we call women empowerment? Do we always keep standing and offer our seats to women? This is what I call the subordination of men!” The old lady was on the verge of a breakdown. Sensing a potential quarrel, she diverted her attention to the world outside the bus. I was left speechless and numb. The others in the bus restrained themselves from intervening in what they believed was “a private matter” on a public bus.

The evening’s events were an eye-opener for me. Although the government has reformed public transportation in the city over the last decade, the unavailability, inadequacy and, most importantly, the inaccessibility of public bus transport for many commuters shows us how the transformation of urban transportation in the city is still a distant dream. As such, it is essential to remove such impediments and discrimination so deeply embedded in the access and enjoyment of public facilities.

 

Updated On : 2nd Jan, 2019

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