Tickets, please, for a dice with death with teenage killer drivers

DELHI DAYS
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There you are, a bus driver in New Delhi. To be exact, a driver on a Red Line bus, the cheapest - and probably most dangerous - form of transportknown to man, and that includes jet fighters and bungee jumping. You are probably still in your teens and can't read traffic signs. Your only road experience is riding motor-scooters back in your sleepy village. In Delhi, you have bought a licence with a 500-rupee bribe that entitles you to drive a very large bus bursting with passengers.

Not only do you have to contend with the Delhi's moving morass of rickshaws, bicycles, camels and the odd elephant, but there's an added drawback that tends to make your hands on the wheel a little sweaty: all of your passengers want to kill you.

Why? Because without any training, it's easy to forget that you're not on your scooter, zipping between the ox-carts back on the country roads. Try the same manoeuvres in a huge, red juggernaut of a bus in a city swarming with 10 million people and, well, you are likely to bash into things. And people, too.

Insurance papers? Not necessary, you're told by your bosses. The only insurance you're given is that the door on the driver's side has been removed. This way, after you squash some pedestrian, you can leap out and run before your own passengers beat you to death. It happens.

Supposing you out-sprint the mob on your heels, you lie low for a few days. The boss will give you your job back, on a different Red Line route, and you hope nobody recognises you. Otherwise, it's out the door again before you're shredded into chicken tikka.

Delhi has this problem with its Red Line buses. They kill people. Hundreds. Just two weeks ago, a Red Line bus careened so close to another bus that a schoolgirl leaning into the breeze with her head out of the window was decapitated. The head rolled into a fancy neighbourhood known as Vasant Vihar, where the diplomats live, and caused quite a fuss. This time, the driver was saved from a possible lynching by the police who jostled him away and charged him with "rash negligence".

The Red Lines are privately owned, and contracted out to the city. The driver's daily wage depends on how many passengers he picks up, which is not conducive to slow and safe driving. In fact, Red Line buses race each other, barrelling down Delhi's streets with the winner heaving into the bus stop at such an angle that he blocks his rival, along with all other vehicles, from passing. On the Red Line bus's rear fender is written Honk Please! but even if you do, they seldom stop slewing in front of you to let you by. The driver's reasoning is: "Why should I move? I'm bigger than you." It's an effective argument.

One respected newspaper kept a running tally on its front page on the number of people squashed, flattened, mulched, and mangled by Red Line buses. Every day it seemed the killer buses claimed fresh victims. The purpose of the newspaper's exercise was to shame the city authorities into stopping these unschooled Red Line madmen. But many months went by, and still the Red Lines kept on running over people. If nothing else, this press crusade seem to draw attention to the futility of trying to change anything at all in India, and the editors dropped it.

Eventually the Delhi municipal officials did finally act. They painted some of the Red Line buses a different colour, from sacrificial scarlet to more calming stripes of blissful blue and heavenly white.

One Delhi-wallah pointed out on a newspaper's letters page that in Britain, double-decker buses have always been red without that colour provoking murderous intent. Not only is white the symbol of surrender, but for Hindus white is often associated with death and mourning. Very appropriate, for Delhi's killer buses.

TIM McGIRK

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