Monday, October 6, 2014

"No, I will not adjust maadi" - An open letter to the Director of Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC)

Dear Sir.

I write this letter to you as a loyal customer and passenger as well as in the interest of the high standards of service that KSRTC is known for.

Having lived in Bangalore for over 2 years now, KSRTC buses have been a blessing for an avid traveller like myself to journey to different parts of Karnataka, whether for work or leisure. As most others in Karnataka would agree with me, your buses have always been ahead of private companies as well as other state corporations in comfort, punctuality, hygiene, hospitality and overall, value for money. I can safely say that I’ve never regretted booking your buses as I was always assured of the aforementioned list of quality services until…what happened on the bus journey from Sirsi to Bangalore on the night of 4th October 2014.

Due to the unavailability of buses from Gokarna to Bangalore, my friend and I caught a KSRTC Airavat bus (KA 01.F.8072) from Sirsi, scheduled to start at 8.33 pm on the 4th of October 2014. We arrived from Gokarna a little earlier before the time of departure and when we asked locals about the said bus to Bangalore, we were informed that it would only arrive by 9.00 pm. Time soon passed and it was 8.33 pm but the bus bearing the KSRTC Airavat sign was no where at sight. We decided to visit the restroom when we suddenly got a call from the conductor asking us if we were catching the bus. We evaded the visit to the restroom and rushed to catch the bus, nearing which we saw it did not have Airavat written anywhere but just ‘Volvo’. The bus conductor and driver yelled at us for making them wait for about 10 minutes, a mistake we accepted even though we were a bit confused given the look of this bus was so different from all the other Airavats we’ve travelled in before.

One we stepped inside and took our seats, it didn’t take me long to realize that I wasn’t feeling the usual chill that I normally do in AC Volvo buses. I checked the AC vents and realized it was only blowing cool air from it. Neither the windows of the bus were forming any mist (normally happens in AC buses) nor was I getting enough air where I was seated. We tried to adjust the air vents to maximize the blower but to no avail. Moreover, the air was stale which was another indication of the fact that there was no circulation happening i.e. the air conditioner was definitely not switched on. In no time, we were in the middle of the Ghats and my friend (a Kannadiga who speaks the language) managed to go upto the conductor and the driver to request him to switch on the air conditioner. Each time that she went upto them to make this request, they simply dismissed her off claiming that the air conditioner was on and working.

The Airavat logo but just Volvo written on the bus. Is this really an Airavat or an ancient version of the bus?
In the meanwhile, I began feeling claustrophobic and experiencing breathlessness due to the non-conditioned and stale air blowing from the vents, as the bus zipped on the hairpin bends of the Western Ghats. I have extensively travelled on hilly roads in the North East and the Himalayan region in the North without experiencing any motion sickness so I certainly knew that it wasn’t that. For disclaimer’s sake, I felt just fine in the local bus that we had to take from Kumta to Sirsi to catch your bus and I certainly didn’t consume anything that would get me breathless or dizzy before I got on your bus.

Moving on, the conductor and driver continued to claim nothing was wrong with the bus even as my friend reported to them that I was experiencing breathlessness. I had to sit upright and keep my face close to the vent, as it was the only source of oxygen, otherwise it felt like I was breathing in the CO2 that I breathed out. We were considering getting off at Shimoga to catch another bus (a real Airavat!) to Bangalore given the attitude and reception from the driver and conductor. Thankfully, my friend had an anti allergy pill on her which was the only saving grace for me on this journey. I told her that if I felt better by the time we reached Shimoga, we’ll just pull through on this bus but if I didn’t, we would have to change buses (if we even managed to get one last moment!).

We then stopped at a place about an hour before Shimoga where a lot of passengers alighted the bus. Suddenly, we found the temperature going down and mist had formed on the windows. The air conditioning was finally working or had been switched on; we weren’t sure which one it was. I told my friend to ask the conductor (in Kannada) why he didn’t pay any heed to our repeated requests before, knowing that we were suffocating for about an hour (or more) before the stop. He just said that the AC automatically adjusts the temperature and that it was on all the time. In a calm and straightforward manner, we rebutted his claim to which he rudely dismissed us off by saying, go ahead and complain. At that moment, I remarked that “Oh so it’s a Government job so you’re not bothered, right?” Both of us were appalled at his cavalier attitude and spoke to ourselves about how sarkari (Government) employees don’t realize there’s a thing called ‘social media’ now and gone are the days when people’s voices remained unheard or the time when people didn’t care/want to express themselves enough.

As if this attitude wasn’t enough, the driver suddenly stopped in the middle of nowhere after taking off from the station. He then came towards us and rudely asked my friend, what was our problem when everyone else was sitting in the bus without any issues. We explained what happened after we took off from Sirsi and how despite our repeated requests, the AC wasn’t turned on. The bus driver starts yelling and scolding us for creating a nuisance with the same lame explanation of the “automatic system of the AC which increases and decreases the temperature”. Anyone who has been on a KSRTC Airavat AC Volvo bus knows they have to wear something warm and cannot do without the provided blankets during the full course of the journey. To make matters worse, the conductor and another guy (not in uniform) joins him with a very aggressive body language, almost threateningly telling us it wasn’t their fault and that we need to adjust to this. My friend retorted, “We’re always being asked to adjust in India but this situation was not about adjusting. My friend couldn’t breathe because the AC wasn’t on and all she could breathe was stale air. What if she had fainted, then I would have had to take her to a hospital in Shimoga”. 

My protests, of course, fell to deaf ears since they were in English and in this moment at least, I didn’t feel apologetic about not speaking Kannada. The driver and conductor said that if we had any problems, we should complain about the bus but keep them out of it. Unsurprisingly, no one around us so much as uttered a word or even tried to calm the situation down despite the fact that 3 bus guys were yelling at two female passengers in the middle of nowhere in a threatening body language. By now quite a scene was created and the driver went back to his seat saying that he would stop at the nearest police station if we wanted to register a complaint against them. This was uncalled for considering neither of us ever mentioned the police and it was too obvious that they were trying to intimidate us. My friend warned them that she had relatives in Shimoga who would gather enough people in a moment’s notice if they tried to act funny with us. We were left completely irritated with the situation and the AC was still not consistently running, switching on and off at different time intervals.

Before reaching Shimoga, a solo female passenger sitting in front of me told us that the air vent above her seating was leaking. She asked the conductor to come and check, who took about 10 minutes to be convinced it was leaking before moving her to another seat next to a gentleman she obviously didn’t know! I just wondered where the common sense of this conductor was in adjusting her with a male passenger when he could have easily exchanged seats for her to sit next to a female passenger. She surprisingly did not protest.

At KSRTC Shimoga bus stand. The guy in white uniform is the bus driver (sweetly) explaining to our friend how the AC system in the bus works.
Once we were at Shimoga, a friend (male) happened to stop by at the bus station to meet my friend. The moment the bus driver saw this guy speaking to us, he started explaining the situation in a very sweet tone to this friend of my friend’s. He probably feared a local backlash, which is why he spoke so sweetly to this guy, a complete contrast from the attitude he took with us. Since I was anyway feeling a little better after taking the pill, we decided to suck it up and get to Bangalore as it was just another 5-6 hours of journey.

While many may not feel like this story is as horrific as what could have been, there’s a reason for that. It’s because we’ve all been conditioned and programmed to adjust maadi all our lives that we’ve learned to accept such sub standard services without a protest. The one hour ride before I took the pill felt like hell – imagine being cooped up in a tightly shut bus with no ventilation (the windows couldn’t be opened) and stale air to breathe, while the bus swirles along the Ghats! Moreover, the attitude of the KSRTC employees was not the usual rude and dismissive behavior of sarkaari servants that we’re so used to (mainly because of a lack of choice). Their body language was clearly threatening and unbecoming for any employee in the hospitality sector, even if it was a state run bus.

Considering that I survived the nightmare, I could have easily moved on and simply sworn off using KSRTC ever again. But I know that doesn’t really improve the service and in doing so, I effectively become part of the inefficient system. Hence, I would like to request your patronage and support on the following:

a) Please do not use sub standard Volvo buses to meet high season demands. If a customer has booked and paid for an Airavat AC Volvo, they should be getting nothing less than that. Especially, KA 01.F.8072 should be discontinued from customer service until it has been fully fixed. Interestingly, there is no mention of passenger safety measures in the bus, except for accident relief trust.

b) Temporary dismissal (without leave) of the bus conductor and driver to train them on basic etiquettes and appropriate ways of dealing with passengers (especially women) if such a situation were to arise. Just to remind you, it was them who raised their voice at us first and started yelling with no consideration for a moment about the passenger’s health or difficulty. What if it was an asthmatic person in my place or what if I was all alone or with someone who couldn’t speak Kannada? More than the stale air from the dysfunctional AC, it was the stale attitude of your employees that made the situation worse than it even needed to be. I will also be writing an email to to complain against the operating crew and on the faulty air conditioning system. 

If you booked a KSRTC Airavat AC Volvo bus and this shows up, don't get on it. Demand for the latest version of the bus!

I request your response to this letter at the earliest with an assurance of action that would be taken on the aforementioned points.

An avid Airavat passenger.

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