Recently, I happened to travel from Pune, Maharashtra to Vadodara/Baroda, Gujarat by bus to look at some urgent family affairs. Though I was afraid to travel out during this corona times, but the urgency of the situation urged me to go out and visit my family. Based on the experience I had during travel to and fro, I decided to write a post to request people to #StayAtHome. Please!
During lockdown, we all were compelled to stay at home. The fear and uncertainity along with enormous escalation of infections and deaths in some of the most advanced countries like USA, Italy and Spain had convinced us to stay safe indoors. But as soon as the lockdown was lifted, and in India, where the unlocking phase began, we started moving out of our homes. Ofcourse, people eventually got bored staying inside home, and for a developing economy like India, where the WFH culture is not yet accepted, and not even feasible, it was inevitable for us to move out for work or daily necessities. Also, looking at the rising number of new Covid infections inspite of the lockdown, it looks like the lockdown did not work, and on the other side, severely hampered the developing economy. Hence, nowadays, when the media or medical experts advise us to stay at home, we somehow ignore them.
So, I decided to travel inspite of the new zenith gained everyday looking at the number of Covid infections and deaths. I booked the bus – Gujarat travels from Pune to Vadodara, with return ticket as well. My journey from Pune to Vadodara was overnight travel, in a sleeper coach. With a naive intention to save some money ( as we all are in that saving mode nowadays due to the possible fear of upcoming recession), I booked the Non-AC bus. This turned out to be a colossal mistake as I would realize later. Luckily, I booked the return from Vadodara to Pune an Air Conditioned one, but it was a day travel, and it had its own version of problems as I would experience soon.
Thus, I packed my bags, and boarded the bus. The booking was done through RedBus, and it was told that the bus operator will allow only the passengers who had worn mask. The thermal checks will be done before boarding, and everyone will be given hand sanitizer. Besides, social distancing (6 ft) will be maintained inside the bus. But when I boarded the bus, neither was I checked for mask, nor was the thermal check conducted. Even hand sanitizer was not provided. But I had worn mask, and carried enough hand sanitizer with me. This was just the beginning of the violation of Covid rules by the bus operators.
Then, I saw that the compartments were just separated by a thin curtain, and the distance between each compartment was surely less than 6 ft. They should have made alternate seating, but they did not. I was still safe because I had booked the single compartment with one bed on the left isle. But on the right isle of the bus, there were a large compartment with two beds near to each other. I assumed this must be reserved only for the family. But it was not. They had allowed anyone to sit near each other. This was really a gross violation of the social distancing rules.
Then, the bus conductor took the Aadhar details from everyone, and worst, was that he had worn mask beneath the nose. Afterall, the mask is meant to be put on the nose and mouth to cover. Why would anyone on the earth wear mask below the nose and mouth? I had no answer for this. He had not worn any hand gloves, and the pen and paper used to write the details, were common. In India, when the government boasts of the “Digital revolution” brought about, but the bus operators were still using the traditional way of pen and paper. Rather, they should have taken the pics of Aadhar card for verification, or the RedBus should have allowed the passengers to provide these details in the app itself. How would the pen and paper which was shared with all the passengers be more safe and better during a pandemic than the app? This showed the lack of seriousness in the bus authorities.
As I mentioned about my mistake to book a non-AC bus, so I suffered from lack of ventilation, and due to small compartments, closed by curtains, I had to open the window during the night to allow some fresh air. But being an overnight journey, coupled with monsoon rains and traffic jam in the Mumbai area, I must have inhaled more pollutants than fresh air. Also, I feared for the sneezing and coughing from any passengers, which would make the closed, non-ventilated environment inside the bus an ideal breeding ground for Covid infection. Due to all this, I could not sleep much and thus, the night journey turned out to be quite a disaster.
Finally, after the hustle and bustle, I reached Vadodara. After visiting my relatives, and spending a good weekend with them, I started my journey back to Pune. I was comforted with the thought that this journey might be a lot better than the previous one due to the availability of AC as well as an upper deck. But barely did I knew at that time what experiences would soon lay before me!
First of all, the bus got excruciatingly delayed by more than 2 hours. I was assuming I will board the bus around 7:45 AM, and reach my home by 8 PM. But with this delay, I boarded the bus at 10:20 AM. I did the math again, and now, I would reach home by atleast 10:30 PM. But I had no option but to bite the bullet. The waiting at the bus stop was an awful experience. It was early morning time, and so I happened to be the only passenger at the stop. Also, the Gujarat travels authorities seemed to lack the most basic sense of civility in every possible way. They not only displayed the behavior potraying of the complete lack of responsibility, but also did not seemed to convey any information about this delay. I remembered my days in U.S, when any delay in flight or bus, would be conveyed immediately with sincere apologies by the responsible authorities. I compared both, and could not deny the fact that however India might have progressed as an IT giant, and risen under the strong leadership of PM Modi, but its gonna take a long way to go as the basic mannerism and civility are yet to be imbibed in the common Indian masses. Ofcourse, it would be ridiculous to extrapolate one experience or incidence to all the Indians, but as we know, every small thing matters, and after all, nations are made by people!
Soon, my bus came, and I immediately boarded the bus with a desperation to leave that bus stop ASAP. Again, I saw the same environment inside the bus as I had seen while traveling from my home. No thermal checks were conducted, and no social distancing. But the bus was more comfortable due to AC, and having secured an upper deck, I felt to be on the top of the world!
After few hours, I witnessed an amazing experience. It was afternoon, and the bus had reached the Gujarat-Maharashtra border. The bus stopped at a local restaurant. We all stepped down for restroom, and to sip some tea. But after sometime, the bus operator told the passengers on the right isle ( which had two seats adjacent to each other) to step down, and get into the car. I was on the left isle with a single seat, so I did not step down. Around 10-12 people from the right isle stepped down. It didn’t take me long to realize what the real matter was. The bus operators had clandestinely allowed 34-36 passengers to board the bus, when only 24 were allowed ( 12 on the left isle and 12 on the right isle). Hence, now at the border to enter Maharashtra, police officials were going to check, and so to hide this, they let go the extra passengers into another car.
Then, we crossed the border, and the police checked that the total number of passengers in the bus. After looking at the excellent observation of social distancing rules (??) inside the bus, they let us go. Ofcourse the police were not naive, and they did know things were staged. But then the bus operators also knew how to handle them, and so, things went smoothly.
Then after entering Maharashtra, the bus stopped after some time, and those 10-12 passengers boarded back again. I was stunned and no wonder why Covid cases are rising in India. When on one side, the govt is unlocking everything, and on the other side, the Covid virus is also getting unlocked. Adding fuel to the fire are incidences like this, when the utter disgusting actions by the bus authorities to earn more money has made things go out of hand. For them it is always business as usual, even amidst the pandemic. The pressure to stay in business, and make money becomes more important than the fear of getting infected, and even death. For them, the losses incurred during lockdown need to be recovered, and hence, no matter how many rules are broken, or how many human lives are put in danger, everything is secondary in front of surviving in the job or business. Period.
So, after reaching home late at night ( I reached at midnight), I contemplated over these thoughts, and decided to write a post about this. And so I urge everyone to Stay at Home, unless something is absolutely necessary to be done. Things are real bad out there, and many people do not care for life anymore. All they care is business or getting the job done. We cannot blame them entirely, as the fear to die from hunger is more than Covid. The fear of losing job or getting bankrupt in business is more than getting ill by infection. Hence, it is our responsibility to take care of ourselves. These are not normal times, and hence, the luxury of travel for leisure are a thing of the past ( atleast for few years!). Today, we need to stay safe and healthy, and then only we will be able to travel for leisure in future when things become more safer.
Next day, I tweeted about this experience to RedBus, and they reached out to me immediately. Then, I was told that they had taken this very seriously, and reprimanded the bus operators with a strong feedback. I do not say that this will stop immediately as old habits seldom die. But I also hope that things will ameliorate as more people share their experiences on social media, and act as aware citizens. We cannot depend on any organization to tackle this pandemic, but its a collective responsibility now. This pandemic is a test of human patience, and unity as well. The more we collaborate and support together, the weaker the virus will become.
As Steve Jobs famously used to say – Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish. Now I think the time has changed, and the more relevant message for us will be – Stay Home, Stay Safe.