Few takers for the wheel of public transport

When was the last time you had a sense of shared space with other drivers on the road? Probably never!

This is what Mumbai entrepreneur Ram Badrinathan is trying to address through his module Pawan ko kahin dekha kya? (Have you seen Pawan?) even as cities and bus and truck companies grapple not only with ill-trained drivers, but also with a shortage of drivers.

According to estimates from experts and driver training schools run by various companies, there are 700-800 drivers for every thousand commercial and public transport vehicles, a shortage of 20-30 per cent. No national register of drivers exists, which makes it difficult to cross-check these numbers.

The lack of drivers is due to a three-pronged problem - low salaries (a bus driver in Delhi gets about Rs 500 for an eight-hour shift), problems with the police after an accident and some baffling entry barriers. A requisite to drive a bus as part of public transport in Delhi, for instance, is a school degree or a 12th class certificate. A bus driving licence can be secured only after two years of holding a valid driver's licence. Processes such as police verification increase such barriers.

"I don't understand this 10th- or 12th-class pass…what is needed is you train them well," says Neeraj Gupta, managing director of Meru Cabs, for whom one of the most frustrating things is the unavailability of drivers who could scale up to be franchisees.

Company-supported schools
"It is all about the man behind the wheel," says Gupta, whose six-year-old company runs radio taxis in five cities, including Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore.

The lack of well-trained people behind the wheel has resulted in companies opening driver training schools or supporting government efforts. Maruti Suzuki India Ltd, the country's biggest car maker, helps run six schools that train bus and truck drivers - Institutes of Driving & Traffic Research (IDTRs) - besides the usual car-driving schools. There are two IDTRs in Delhi, two in Haryana and one each in Gujarat and Uttarakhand. Three more are slated to come up in Bihar and Odisha. In 2012-13, IDTRs trained 80,000 drivers for heavy commercial vehicles.

"While the transportation industry is galloping, drivers learn only in an informal way," says Mahesh Rajoria, who manages the IDTRs for Maruti. "People in India learn driving by observing each other."

An IDTR module includes simulator training, learning road signs and training in soft skills. Maruti driving schools also offer lessons to drivers on how to deal with stress, alcohol abuse, the spread of HIV, etc.

Ashok Leyland and Tata Motors, which dominate the bus and truck market in India, are other companies which support the government in training drivers. "Every year, India experiences a shortage of thousands of drivers," said a Tata Motors spokesperson via email. "Tata Motors, too, has launched special buses and trucks, for which trained drivers are a must to increase the average lifetime of a commercial vehicle."

Tata Motors has partnered driver training institutes in Muktsar (Punjab), Dimapur (Nagaland) and Silchar (Assam) to train drivers of heavy and light trucks and buses. Last year, the company helped train 400 drivers in these locations, bringing to the partnership driver training equipment, trainers and help with job placements.

The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways had sanctioned a two-day refresher programme for 5,000 heavy transport vehicle drivers for the school in Punjab this financial year, said the Tata spokesperson. The company has signed agreements to open one such school in Ajmer (Rajasthan), in partnership with Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services Limited, as well as two in Odisha.

Gupta of Meru Cabs is also in the initial stages of opening a driving school in Mumbai.

Despite the training, certification of drivers for public transport remains a hurdle. To earn a public service badge in Delhi, aspirants need paperwork in the form of a clean police record and proof of residence. "It takes eight years to train a bus driver and then, he runs away after an accident," said Harvinder Singh Kalra, who operates a fleet of buses as part of Delhi's public transport system.

Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transit System (DMITS), which issues licences in the capital, says it has issued 130,000 public service badges in the last five years, which works out to 95,000 trained public transport drivers (some drivers lose their badges or get duplicate ones).

No national records
India lacks official records of the number of such drivers, as no national register is maintained. Those who monitor the issuing of driving licences say very few states are stringent in keeping official records. "Half the drivers in Delhi come from outside," said a DMITS official who works on issuing of driving licences. "Around 45 per cent have outside-Delhi licences; we are not able to verify those."

Badrinathan, who was roped in by the Uttar Pradesh government to train lorry drivers at the Kumbh mela this year, says certification isn't the only hurdle to getting good drivers. "There is no transparency, no trust between the owner and the driver. A bus driver or truck driver is given a budget within which he has to deliver the goods," he says. "Driving is one of the professions by which those in rural India can get into urban India."