At 5 am one day last week, bus driver Daulat Ram reported for duty as usual at Millennium Park Bus Depot, the largest bus station in the capital. Activity has been especially intense this fortnight for the Delhi Transport Corporation, which runs the city's public bus services. As the latest phase of the capital's odd-even plan got underway on April 15, allowing car owners to drive only every other day, the DTC has put 680 more vehicles on the road to help commuters get around. But even after waiting outside Millennium Park control room for nine hours, Daulat Ram still hadn't been allotted a route.

“It is 2 pm, and I don't know if I will get any work today,” he said.

The uncertainty faced by Ram wasn't unusual. It's a fate he and 14,000 of the DTC's 27,000 drivers and conductors face every day when they clock in. That's because they have been hired on annual contracts and are assigned a route only if a permanent employee is absent.

They see little hope of that changing. Ironically, even though the key to ensuring the success of the odd-even scheme to control pollution and traffic congestion will be to persuade more Delhi commuters to use public transport, more than 50% of the workers who run the city's bus system aren't even sure of earning the minimum wage at the end of each month.

Daily labour market

The DTC pays its contractual workers Rs 429 a day, along with provident fund based on the number of days worked in a month. But the temporary workers said they end up with less than the legal minimum wage of Rs 11,622 a month.

“In March, I was on the morning shift,” said Kamal Kumar, a 25-year old bus conductor. “I reached the depot early every morning and gave my biometric attendance. But after turning up every day, I got work on only nine days and earned only Rs 3,998 as salary.”

That day, Kumar had reached the depot at noon, and had already been waiting for two hours. Several other contractual workers like him also milled around outside the control room at the Millennium Park bus depot.

From time to time, two men sitting inside the control room announced on the microphone the numbers of those to whom duties had been assigned – three-digit numbers for permanent employees, and five-digit IDs for contractual staff.

Getting work depends on how many permanent workers were absent that day, explained a worker. “The officials depute a number of permanent staff every day and ask us to turn up at the same time in case there is a shortage,” said Arun Saini, a bus conductor working at the Nangloi bus depot on contract since 2010. “It is as if we are being used as a spare tyre, a stepney.”

Unused capacity

The DTC has a fleet of 4,344 buses, with an additional 1,200 buses from the privately run cluster bus services under the Delhi Integrated Multimodal Transport Systems. It employs 13,000 bus drivers and 14,000 conductors, of whom half work on annual contracts, say officials. The DTC buses carry 36 lakh passengers daily, while cluster buses carry an additional 10 lakh passengers. Since the odd-even plan started, an additional 3 lakh more passengers are using the DTC buses. By comparison, the Delhi Metro ferries 26 lakh passengers every day.

However, in a study last year, the Centre for Science and Environment environmental think-tank noted that DTC ridership has stagnated and declined after 2012-'13, when it carried 43 lakh passengers daily. This is possibly because DTC misses a large number of scheduled bus trips due to traffic congestion.

The poor maintenance of buses has also led to frequent breakdowns, curtailing services. Besides inconveniencing commuters, this has a direct bearing on workers too. Poor maintenance or missed trips lead to 400-500 buses being confined to the depots, and this means there are fewer buses available to be assigned to waiting contractual staff.

Even when contractual workers get assigned a route, Delhi’s heavy traffic congestion means that they are often unable to complete a full trip during their eight-hour shift. They have to work four to five hours more than their regular shifts, or miss out on incentive payments that are linked to completing a certain number of trips every month.

Odd-even fans

The Centre for Science and Environment's analysis showed that DTC buses cover an average of 188 km a day, lower than the daily average of 270 km covered by Bengaluru's public buses. In addition, Delhi buses are able to complete only two-thirds of their scheduled kilometres a day – and that too not on time. This means its staff works longer than the eight hours prescribed by the Motor Transport Workers Act, 1961.

This is why several workers say they support the odd-even scheme, since it reduces congestion and allows more buses to ply on the roads.

At Rohini depot for instance, contract workers who had been on strike since January 5 demanding parity in wage and work conditions with regular workers, suspended their strike on April 12 in support of the odd-even plan. “All staff like to work during odd-even because there is less congestion, and greater ease while driving,” said Ajay Kumar, a contractual driver. “Similarly, the Bus Rapid Transit system was good for both bus commuters and DTC drivers, but the government dismantled it.”

However, Delhi Transport Corporation spokesperson RS Minhas failed to see much merit the workers' complaints. “We pay and depute workers as per the Motor Transport Workers law,” said Minhas. “We have more conductors on contract than required so sometimes even though we try to adjust their duties, they get left out and cannot get work on some days.”

Minhas added that beginning April 18, the DTC had asked Tata and Ashok Leyland maintenance staff to be present inside its control rooms to respond quickly to complaints of breakdown of buses during the odd-even scheme.