Delhi's bus passengers demand safer travel as death toll hits 97

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Every day that Rajesh Kumar hops on a bus, he knows he is taking a chance. "I've not had any problems and I'm just hoping nothing will happen," the computer technology student said as he waited to catch a bus home from college. In Delhi, something as simple as using public transport can be a deadly endeavour.

The city's private bus operator, Blueline, has come under fire over the soaring numbers of people killed, maimed or injured beneath the wheels of buses. Every day, it seems, comes news of another accident involving a bus on the streets of the Indian capital. This year, 97 people have been killed.

Fatalities have become so common that Delhi's senior court has stepped in and ordered the city government to come up with a plan to improve the way the buses are run and find a safer alternative. The court demanded action after Sheila Dikshit, the chief minister of Delhi, said she would "rather walk than board a Blueline bus".

Blueline buses, named after the blue stripes on the sides of the vehicles, were introduced in the 1990s to supplement the overburdened fleet run by the city. Rather than being owned by a single company, they are operated by more than 3,000 individuals battling for the most lucrative routes. There are widespread allegations of intimidation and corruption and claims that little has been done to improve safety because some buses are owned by politicians and senior officials.

When a bus is involved in an accident, it is usual for the driver to flee the scene to avoid angry crowds. Last weekend, a mob of up to 3,000 people set fire to a Blueline vehicle after it mowed down a crowd of people in south Delhi, killing seven and injuring dozens. The driver tried to escape but was captured by the crowd and almost beaten to death. Police used batons and tear gas to disperse the rioters, rescue the driver and take him into custody. Apparently, the brakes on the bus were faulty.

With fares costing about 10 rupees (12p), buses are used overwhelmingly by the poorer of Delhi's 15 million residents to make their way across the vast, crowded city. "I can afford to take a rickshaw some days but not every day," said Mr Kumar, who spends up to four hours a day travelling between college and his home in the suburbs. Delhi, with its chaotic, clogged streets becoming increasingly filled with cars, has one of the worst road accident death rates in the world. But the People's Action campaign group believes simple steps could be taken to improve the safety of bus services.

It has proposed a plan to city authorities which would require drivers to be better trained, for there to be regular roadworthiness checks and for buses to be equipped with automatic doors to prevent passengers from falling off. It has also demanded that the ownership details of all of the 4,500 Blueline buses be made public. "People put up with the system because there is no alternative," said Sanjay Kaul, the chairman of People's Action. "How else are you going to get to the office?"

City officials are already extending the newly built metro system which, while modern and efficient, only reaches parts of Delhi so far. There is pressure to have the work finished in time for the Commonwealth Games – which Delhi will host in 2010 – as the authorities spruce up various aspects of the capital.