Let’s assume that you’re travelling from Bangalore to Hyderabad on an overnight inter-city bus. You boarded the bus at 6:00 PM. It’s been around 4 hours and the driver hasn’t yet stopped for a restroom break. It’s the middle of summer and you’ve been guzzling water, trying to cool down, because the air conditioner has broken down. Finally, you make your way to the driver’s booth to talk him into stopping at the next public toilet and he agrees.
At last, the bus screeches to a stop. Relieved, you jump out, looking for the sign that will point you towards the toilets and freeze; because you can’t even spot a building in the near distance, let alone a toilet. What you see instead are fields of tall grass, some trees, and a lonely dog staring at the strange apparition with bright lights. The driver, the conductor, and some of the others saunter away towards the trees and begin relieving themselves and you groan internally, wondering how is it that you found yourself in an alternate universe where you had a role in the movie — “Toilet: Ek Prem Katha”.
Unfortunately this story, unlike the movie, doesn’t have a happy ending. This is a harsh reality for many who commute by buses in India, especially when travelling from one city to another. The bus industry in India suffers from various drawbacks like unhygienic conditions, lack of punctuality, and safety to name a few. Although certain business ventures have stepped in with the attempt to make inter-city bus travel slightly easier to tolerate, the scenario as a whole, as well as the industry appears to be stuck in the past. Despite substantial technological evolution at the global level, the facilities and amenities provided by travel companies are outdated and simply inadequate to satisfy the demands of the modern traveller.
What are the problems? Well, first, the buses are quite untimely, particularly those with longer routes. Either, they depart late or move slowly along the way, thus arriving at the destination much later than scheduled. By now, Indians bus traveller is so accustomed to arriving late that we often plan our itineraries accordingly! In fact, we are so surprised when the driver manages to take us somewhere within the ETA that we are thrown off track by all the extra time on our hands.
Second, there’s the issue with safety. This is especially true of women for whom while travelling alone in overnight buses or often otherwise, stopping at a shady highway restaurant for meals or for restroom breaks is a risk that many wouldn’t rather take. Furthermore, most bus providers don’t bother running background checks on their employees, prompting us to question their safety policy, if at all they have one.
Third, is the gruelling experience of being force-fed “entertainment”. As it is, most buses have that one screen mounted behind the driver’s cabin, facing interested and disgusted passengers alike, and blaring in full volume. Although some buses happen to have individual systems for every seat, they are either semi-functional or dead. You might find a charging socket beside your seat, only to realize that it’s futile, prompting you to disturb neighbours, or worse, leave your belongings at the driver’s cabin.
Fourth, one of the biggest problems with these seemingly ancient buses is the lack of cleanliness. The seat covers, if any, often feel and smell like they haven’t been washed in ages, and in some extreme cases, never since they were first put there. To add, most restrooms along the route are so rarely clean that you’re forced to choose between a spot behind the trees and the ghastly restrooms, praying that you don’t pick up a dreadful infection.
But anyhow, despite these challenges, we are forced to avail of these dreadful services, primarily, because of lack of choice. Making things worse, there’s no real interest among government bodies to amend these issues. However, with certain entrepreneurs taking on this challenge of ensuring comfortable and safe travel, there is still a light at the end of the tunnel.