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Bus To Delhi

By Dr Mubashir Hasan

The Nation
16 October, 2003

Nothing exists in the world like Lahore-Delhi bus service. It is not an economic proposition but a political triumph of sorts. Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had inaugurated it some years ago when he came to Lahore for his famous summit meeting with Prime Minister of Pakistan, Muhammad Nawaz Sharif. The service operates in the most extraordinary, even weird manner. Through crowded towns and highways, the bus to Delhi hurtles like the VIP cavalcade which is late for its appointment. On every road crossing of its 530 km journey, police ensures its passage without a stop. One for each district administration en route, a relay of police vehicles, two in front, flying red flags and one carrying an armed guard in the rear roar to guarantee the safety and unhindered passage of the bus.

With sirens blowing all the way, men in pilot vehicles clear the way for the bus with merciless zeal, waving battens in the air, sometimesm hitting drivers of scooters, scooter rickshaws and their vehicles which are slow in yielding the
way. All red lights are violated with impunity. It is an ugly sight. The aggressive behaviour of the police in the two Punjabs, Haryana and Delhi
is identical in this respect. At Lahore and Delhi and at five stops on the way, there is heavy presence of police and security men and women in plain clothes guard the passengers and the bus. I experienced the journey on Friday, 26 September, 2003. The passengers started arriving at the Falettis Hotel at 4 am to board the 6 am bus. No proper bus station, even a make-shift
one, has yet been constructed in Lahore. Two rooms, the veranda in front of the rooms and the outside tarmac serve as a bus station for the next 2-3 hours. The entire perimeter is cordoned off by police personnel serving as a fence to enclose the passengers. The difficult duty often resulted in unpleasant exchanges. There were no proper arrangements to check the passengers and their baggage for disallowed items, to seat all the passengers in a comfortable lounge, to put the checked-in baggage in safety, to issue
boarding passes in an organised way as at airports. The loading of the baggage on the bus remained the responsibility of the passengers. They had to pay for it. The porters fleeced the passengers left and right. All told, the
arrangements at the Falletis boarding station are quite unsatisfactory.

The bus had a seating capacity for thirty-nine passengers. We were fifty on that Friday morning. The extra eleven passengers were accommodated on
small fragile folding chairs in between the two regular rows of seats and at the back in the space meant for luggage. A heavy set man requiring a seat of more than two feet base had to be precariously perched on a chair with a seat
hardly a foot wide. The eleven additional passengers meant 220 kgs of extra luggage which necessitated special arrangement to tie it on top of the bus. Some had to be placed inside the bus. The overloading also meant extra time at the two immigration and customs checkpoints on both sides of the border. Because of the overloading, we reached Delhi almost four hours late.

Overloading the bus was irregular. Someone defied the operational orders and took huge risks with the passenger's lives and PTDC's liability. The bus got delayed. The two bus drivers who were on duty from 4 am to 10 pm and were to bring back the bus to Lahore the next day were left no time for rest. In case of an accident, which is bound to take place some day for sneaking the bus
through densely populated route at high speeds with overworked drivers, the damage claims by the passengers on account of injuries and deaths
would bankrupt the PTDC as the insurers would not accept the liability when the regulations are broken. The way the bus plies now carries heavy risks.

At Wagah all luggage had to be unloaded for customs check and passengers had to go through immigration formalities. It was a slow and primitive process - carrying luggage on heads and shoulders. Once again the porters fleeced the passengers. For immigration formalities, there were three windows, one for foreigners, one for Indians and one for Pakistanis. The passengers had to stand almost on roadside to get their passports stamped for exit. The procedure in place at Wagah makes a mockery of the procedure followed at our international exit and entry points where computers record data as well as
images. This is a weak link in our security watch. Wagah urgently needs a proper building for customs and immigration clearance. I inspected a
building that was built three years ago for the customs. It was used by other agencies and never handed over to the department it was made for.
All fittings and fixtures, electrical, mechanical, plumbing were ripped off and
vandalised. Any way, the building is architecturally unpleasant, too small for its task with no space provided for immigration formalities.

Crossing the border was eye opening. The bus stopped at a modern spacious building which had polished floors, glass doors and shining chromium. There were chairs for passengers and tables to fill the disembarkation forms. The
immigration staffs were courteous and helped the passengers in filling the forms. The inspectors fed their data on computers which were linked on
the national network of India. Unlike the Pakistani side, the customs staffs were in full uniform and in large numbers. Discipline and efficiency was in the air. No less than six counters were operating. In the compound the
trees, shrubs and hedges were well looked after. Border formalities on both sides over, the run to Delhi started in right earnest. Much needs to be
done to improve the sound system and the quality of audio and video players and cassettes. Since tastes differ, it would be desirable to fit the seats with headphones for passengers to avoid thediscomfort of seeing and listening what one may not like. All seats also need to be provided with seat belts.

At Delhi the bus enters a proper international terminal having all the facilities which Lahore lacks - screening devices, lounges etc.The biggest challenge of the bus service is non-availability of seats. The outward journey is solidly booked for the next six to eight weeks and when you do travel there is no way to book the return journey. If you are lucky to be among the first thirty-four (as five seats are reserved for government nominees) in the queue at Delhi, you can buy a ticket for the bus leaving after 30 days. As a result a stay in India for a minimum of 30 days becomes mandatory.

A Pakistani gentleman, who was visiting a town more than 2500 km south of Delhi, related his ordeal of travelling to Delhi to buy a ticket for Lahore. He was told that none was available for a month. As his visa was due to expire before the end of the one month period, he had to travel all the way back to get the visa extended. He travelled to Delhi once again to buy the ticket, then returned to the place he had come to visit and then finally travelled once again to catch
the bus to Lahore. One extra month stay was an oppressive burden.

The present procedure of selling tickets is nothing short of madness. It is an invitation to corrupt practices. The booking office at Lahore should have the authority to book some Delhi - Lahore seats, say 10 to 15 per bus. In the same way the Delhi booking office should be able to book an equal number of Lahore- Delhi seats. All said and done, a bus is better than no bus, no train, no plane.