It has been seven years since the last new buses were added to the Delhi fleet. Now, with a new study finding that the Delhi metro is the second most expensive system in the world, the lack of more buses on the roads is all the more stinging. The Delhi government sanctioned Rs 150 crores for acquiring new buses in 2018-19, giving a nod for 2,000 new buses in October last year and then clearing a successful tender for 1,000 new buses in May this year. However, not a single bus has been put on the roads yet.
The Supreme Court had passed an order in 1998 that Delhi needs 11,000 buses, but the city at present only has about 5,600. The latest tender has been stayed by the Delhi High Court, in response to a petition by a disability rights activist. The government has proposed to acquire standard floor buses, which are higher and more difficult to access for the disabled and the elderly when compared to low floor buses.
Taking note of disability rights activist Nipun Malhotra's petition, the Delhi High Court issued a stay on the tender in June this year, saying that the government is "bent upon treating the disabled as non-existent, or, in any case not having any rights." The government then appealed to the Supreme Court, citing the urgent need for new buses, the repeated difficulties in finding bidders for low floor buses, and the existence of a high number of low floor buses in the current fleet.
The Supreme Court granted an easing of the stay order in August, stating that the government can go ahead with acquiring 500 standard floor buses - on the condition that it also add 500 low floor buses. The government has gone back to the Supreme Court on September 7, requesting that it be permitted to acquire the entire fleet of 1,000 buses, as the tender has already been cleared.
While this logjam continues, Delhi residents are struggling as a consequence. Reena, a mother of three, travels 7 kilometers every morning to get to work. It takes her an hour on good days, and two bus changes.
"The buses are delayed, there are long waits, I have to keep standing and waiting," she says. "But what else can I do? The metro is far too expensive, and so are the autorickshaws."
A study by the Center for Science and Environment (CSE) agrees. The study found that the Delhi Metro is the second most unaffordable system in the world, claiming as much as 14% on average of a Delhi resident's income, only cheaper than Hanoi, Vietnam. After fare hikes last year, there has been a 32% fall in expected ridership.
And it isn't the metro alone. According to the CSE's data, bus ridership has also fallen by 34% since 2013, and a whopping one-third of Delhi residents cannot afford a non AC bus. Yet, with 31 lakh daily commuters on average according to the DTC, bus users still exceed those who take the metro.
CSE director and author of the study Anumita Roy Chowdhury explains that this is because despite the woeful lack of buses in the system, buses always have better penetration than metros as they do not need to follow fixed tracks.
"We need fleet renewal, but we also want service guarantee - each bus service provider will have to give a guarantee in terms of frequency of the service, reliability, passenger information systems," she said. "But at the current pace of bus acquisition and phasing out, the DTC will have no more buses by 2022."