Most people would be surprised to learn that Himachal’s most iconic symbols are neither Preity Zingta nor Kangana Ranaut, it is the HRTC (the Himachal Road Transport Corporation) bus- green and white in colour when the money is available, a muddy ochre when it is not; battered and dented, baskets of fruits , vegetables and a few drunken Rohru types perched on the roof; a goat or two ruminating on the back seats. Nothing represents Himachal better than a fully loaded HRTC bus, clawing its suicidal way up mountain roads that have no reason to be there, one rear wheel on the road, the other off it, mocking the sheer abyss below it. This humble bus has kept the state connected since long before the roads were taken over by the private cars, SUVs and taxis; it has been the lifeline for Himachal’s commerce, tourism, agriculture and given the state a sense of collective identity.
Its drivers are iconic figures themselves, role models for every village youth and even Mr. Modi’s chaiwallahs, pakoda wallahs and chowkidars have not been able to displace them. They are the counterparts of the gunslingers of the American wild west- a rough breed with their own distinct language and culture, risking their lives daily on roads that defy the accepted laws of gravity, physics and engineering. Every second rural teen aspires to become an HRTC driver. On rural routes, where the buses have to park at night in the terminal point of their route, villagers vie with each other to offer board and lodging( free of course) to the driver, for he is their vital life line to the modern world and markets outside. Well travelled and widely respected he is also a potent opinion maker, especially when it comes to elections!
My first experience with the HRTC occured in 1977 when I had to take my brand new bride to Mandi where I was undergoing my IAS training. In those pre Gadkari days there were only two services to Mandi, one during the day and one overnight. On a cold February night, therefore, Neerja and I boarded the night bus to Mandi at Kashmiri Gate( an ordinary one, there were no AC or deluxe buses then). As an IAS probationer I was allotted the favoured seats just behind the driver. The bus was overcrowded and smelt of Himachal- garlic, angoori, sheep( everybody was wearing the “pattu” coats) and the vapours released by sturdy tribals who had dined well, if not wisely. Fresh out of Lady Shri Ram, Neerja was adorned in tight jeans, jacket and boots; the driver took an instant liking to her and invited her to sit next to him on the hot engine cover. She declined, not wishing to become the toast of the evening. The journey took all of ten bone- breaking hours, we lost most of our luggage (on the roof) on the steep climb from Kiratpur to Swarghat. and the bus broke down twice, coincidentally at ” desi sharab ka thekas” where the driver would disappear for half an hour and reappear saying he had fixed the fuel pipe! I am happy to report that our marriage survived this first test, and every trial and travail since then has been a cakewalk in comparison.
In subsequent years one got to travel quite a lot in HRTC buses, because back then it was the fortunate SDM who got a Jeep to himself. I as SDM Chamba had to share one with the SDM Dalhousie, my good friend C Balakrishnan, who in later years managed the impossible feat of retiring as Secretary Coal in the central government without getting charge-sheeted or imprisoned. I toured extensively by bus in Churah, Tissa, Salooni and Bharmour, some of the most undeveloped areas of the state, and developed a healthy respect for HRTC and its staff.
In the late eighties I was appointed as Managing Director of this creaking behemoth, with 1200 buses and 7000 staff. And here I learnt of some endearing tricks they kept up their sleeve. Leaking of revenues( pocketing the fare instead of issuing tickets) is an existential problem for all state transport undertakings. We used to set up “nakas” everywhere at all hours of the day and night to nab the rascals but rarely succeeded in netting anyone after the first catch. I soon discovered that these chaps had perfected a wireless form of communicating with other buses to warn them of the checkpoints. Remember, this was decades before the advent of the cell phone. They had a system of coded signals which was flashed to all other buses “en passant” ,as it were, warning them of the impending check post. We rarely caught any fish after the first one.
There were no private buses in those pre- liberalisation days and HRTC functioned as a monopoly. This gave their unions enormous power, and they flexed their muscles every six months by going on a strike just for the heck of it. The officers were accustomed to the tried and tested SOP- we were all locked up in our rooms in the head office, sans food or water, gheraoed in proper Labour Day style till we signed on the dotted line. I decided to develop an SOP of my own the day before the next strike. I rang up an old friend, AK Puri who was the DIG ( Police) Shimla and reminded him of our good old days in Bilaspur. He responded in a generous manner: the next day the HRTC office was flooded with more policemen than are currently on election duty in West Bengal. The gherao was rendered ” non est”, the unions decided they didn’t have a case after all, and I had no more strikes for the duration of my tenure- cut short, sadly, by a Minister who was miffed by the fact that I didn’t see (say?) “Aye to Aye” with him!
There were no hard feelings, however. Almost twenty years later a tree fell on me while I was taking my dog for a walk in a snowstorm. I busted three spinal vertebraes, two ribs and punctured a lung and spleen for good measure. I was laid up in hospital for three months and the doctors told me I would probably never walk again without crutches. While I was absorbing all this a group of HRTC drivers came to see me. They told me of a ” vaid” in Mandi who fixed broken bones ( even vertebraes) with a concoction made out of herbs and roots which had to be had four times a day with ghee and honey. They assured me that it would have me on my feet again in two months. On my expressing some well founded scepticism they told me something which made a lot of sense.
“Look, sir, we are breaking our bones all the time in some bus accident or the other. We don’t go to any hospital, we go to this vaid, and he has cured each and every one of us. We all speak from personal experience. Please give him a try- you are already flat on your back, you can’t get any lower than that, can you?”
Since this rhetorical question was one which even Mr. Subramaniam Swamy would have found difficult to answer, I agreed. Every week one of these good samaritans would bring me a fresh batch of the unctuous, foul smelling concoction, with some of the precious ” shilajit” as an added kick. I banished the doctors and surgeons to their autopsy rooms and within three months I was playing golf again, even though my swing is not what it used to be- earlier I used to move the ball, now I move more of terra firma. A couple of years later I retired from service with most of my spine intact, no mean achievement for a bureaucrat, if I say so myself! All because of a bunch of ne’er do wells who remembered an MD who had out-smarted them at their own game twenty years ago.
It’s been a long association with HRTC and I’ve gained more from it than I have given. And it all started with a night bus for Mandi forty two years ago.