Ramesh Kumar, 57, wakes up at 5 am to reach Saharanpur Bus Depot in time for his shift an hour later as a bus driver under the Uttar Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation. Four times a week, Kumar* drives a passenger bus on the 200-km trip between Saharanpur and Delhi, and back. This gruelling schedule comes with low pay and though he has often had to work longer than his usual hours, Kumar says he was paid a flat monthly salary of Rs 24,000.

All of this – including a mandate to cover at least 300 kilometres every day – means that, on occasion, Kumar has found himself being woken up by passengers even as he is driving.

“We are continuously driving,” he said, while waiting for passengers to fill up his bus parked at Inter State Bus Terminal in Delhi’s Kashmere Gate. “What can I do to stay awake? I drink water, have some gutka. I have to do something. I can’t just stop the bus anywhere. There is a shortage of bus drivers.”

Ramesh Kumar’s story is not unique. Thousands of bus drivers around India work long hours with unreliable vehicles and on dangerous roads, for little pay. These conditions might be behind the high numbers of bus accidents that take place every year, such as the bus that skidded off the Yamuna Expressway killing 29 and injuring 17 on July 8 in Agra. The bus belonged to Uttar Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation and police said that it was likely that the driver fell asleep.

After the tragedy, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath directed all state bus drivers to get a medical check-up. The state’s transport minister Swatantra Dev Singh prescribed yoga exercises for drivers on long routes, reported The New Indian Express.

According to data on road accidents by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, there were a total of 32,145 bus accidents in 2017 and 37,487 in 2016. Accidents by buses accounted for 7% of the total number of road accidents in India in 2017, killing at least 10,651 passengers and injuring 44,330.

Why so many accidents? Bus drivers who spoke to Scroll.in pointed out several problems, such as the poor maintenance of buses and staff shortages that are crippling the transport system.

‘Poor maintenance’

At the Inter State Bus Terminal in Delhi’s Kashmere Gate, bus drivers attempted to attract passengers by shouting out the names of the towns and cities to which they were heading.

Rajbir Singh, 39, stood next to his bus that had arrived from Ambala, Haryana, around noon on July 11. Rajbir Singh, who hails from Karnal, had worked as a truck driver for 19 years before landing a job at the Ambala Bus Depot in 2018 with a salary of Rs 25,500. His destinations include Ludhiana, Chandigarh, Patiala and Delhi.

Singh said that his life was under constant threat because of the vehicles he drives.

“The buses only get serviced when there is an emergency,” he said. “The biggest reason for accidents is that there is such poor maintenance of buses. It is either the brakes, engines, pumps or steering wheel that need repair.”

He also pointed out that bus drivers are allotted a different vehicle every time they undertake a new journey. “This is a problem for us because we do not know what the status of the new bus is,” Rajbir Singh said. “There is no manual to alert us about the last time the bus was serviced and what problems it faced earlier.”

Rajbir Singh.

Jarnail Singh, 56, a bus driver employed with the Ambala Bus Depot, said that he usually drove older buses. “When we drive old buses, we cannot take any risks or speed,” he said. “Once on a journey, the wire attached to the rotary pump came off from the bus. I had to stop it somewhere to fix it but a passenger came to demand a refund. I had to give it to him because there was no other option.”

Another driver said that driving during the monsoons posed special risks. “If it rains then the roof of the bus leaks,” said Chandrapal Singh, 50, who is employed with the Dehradun Bus Depot with a monthly salary of Rs 21,000. “The passengers get wet and I cannot do anything. Even the maintenance team cannot fix the problem because the bus came with this defect when it was purchased. They are all in a completely useless condition.”

*Name changed