Indian capital grapples with 'killer' buses

( AFP ) - The Indian capital's private "killer" buses are facing public fury after a spate of deadly accidents, but the drivers say the real problem is corrupt policing and impatient passengers.

On Sunday, eight people, mostly women, were killed in New Delhi when a bus ploughed into commuters, taking this year's toll from accidents involving private buses to nearly 100.

The Delhi government has promised the city's High Court it will submit a plan next month to eventually phase out the 4,500 private "Blueline" buses, and police have also said they are now cracking down on negligent drivers.

But bus drivers said the crackdown will involve policemen handing out a flurry of tickets for violations that are easy to spot but often beyond the driver's control. Then it will be back to business as usual.

That involves levying bribes known as "entry fees" on every vehicle for each of the traffic police checkposts passed, several drivers at different bus stops confirmed. In return, the drivers say, fines and tickets are kept to a minimum.

Given there are well over a dozen traffic posts on any route, thousands of rupees can be paid in bribes for each bus each month.

"It used to be 100 rupees per bus per checkpost," said Devender Singh, 35, who has been driving a bus for 13 years and makes about 6,000 rupees a month. "After they raised traffic fines it is now about 250 rupees."

These payments are taken care of by the bus owners and have been widely reported by local media -- although police deny any involvement.

"We have no such complaints. We are very stringent. This is a lame excuse from the drivers," said police spokesman Rajan Bhagat.

"Wherever we are getting complaints we have taken action. We appeal to the drivers not to pay any bribes to any police."

But bus drivers say that since it is easy to be fined for things that are difficult to prevent -- such as changing lanes or passengers who get on and off at will -- they prefer to pay the bribes. The cheapest fine is 600 rupees.

Many drivers plying the roads of the city of 14 million people say the real headache is careless motorcyclists and passengers.

"Sometimes a motorcycle tries to turn in front of us from the left and by the time you see him it's too late to stop," said bus driver Chottu Singh, adding passengers also jumped on and off buses with little regard for safety.

Police insist the crackdown demanded by the public is working.

"The impact is already there on the road behaviour," said Bhagat, as police were out in force on the streets of New Delhi issuing fines and court summonses -- regardless of whatever bribes were paid.

But commuters waiting for buses said they had not noticed any difference.

"If the bus is picking up passengers he might go at 40 kilometres ( 25 miles) an hour," said Ravi Kumar, 24, a government employee in the city centre.

"Otherwise, it can easily go over 100 kilometres. No one is safe in a Blueline."

The buses are equipped with speed-controlling devices meant to limit speed to 40 kilometres an hour, but the government said it had found at least 826 buses that had disabled the devices.

Still, said Kumar, the privately run Bluelines arrive every five to 10 minutes, unlike the comparatively safer 3,500 state-run buses, which have been involved in accidents that have killed two dozen people this year.

In spite of court orders and government promises to take the private buses off the roads, few commuters had any hope of improvements in the system.

"The system is horrible. The government is not implementing the law," lamented 64-year-old Guru Baksh Singh.

"A driver who kills someone in the morning can be back driving a bus by night."

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