Around 5 PM, driver Jai Singh (45) and conductor Manohar Kumar (24) start for their fourth and last trip of the day from the Kullu bus stand. During a steep hill ride up, they stop at 20 places, picking up and dropping off passengers, on way to their last halt of the day, Chhaman village. By the time the bus reaches Chhaman at 6.45 pm, the temperature has dropped to around 6 degrees Celsius, and it’s pitch dark in the mountains. As the last passenger gets off, Jai Singh parks the bus by the roadside, around 500 metres from the nearest habitation. He and Kumar wash their hands with some water, and by the dim light inside the bus, settle down to have the rice, chapati and dal they bought at Bhuntar, over an hour ago, which has by now turned cold.
Then they spread their beddings on the bus seats, lock the doors, cover themselves with two blankets each, and try to sleep wearing their sweaters and jackets.
Recently, a driver, Raj Mohammad, and a conductor, Hem Raj, of Himachal Road Transport Corporation (HRTC) complained about facing discrimination in Kullu villages for being a Muslim and a Dalit, following which an inquiry was ordered. In one village of upper castes he had halted in for the night, Hem Raj was ‘fined’ Rs 10,000.
Jai Singh and Manohar Kumar say this is a familiar story in Kullu, a district of Himachal Pradesh where every village claims a native devta (deity). Most villages here are dominated by upper castes (29 per cent of Kullu’s population comprises Scheduled Castes), and they do not allow lower castes or Muslims into their homes for fear of “angering” the deity. The lower caste settlements are away from those of upper castes. As the HRTC network grows under public demand, and bus routes expand to remote villages from where returning the same night is impossible, more and more drivers and conductors share accounts similar to Raj Mohammad and Hem Raj’s.
Jai Singh, who has been a driver with HRTC for 15 years and earns a little over
Rs 20,000 a month, says he has only seen this “bias” in Kullu district. “When HRTC started the bus service to Chhaman over a year back, we requested villagers to give us a room on rent so we could rest at night. No one agreed.”
Incidentally, both Jai Singh and Manohar Kumar, who earns Rs 5,400, are upper castes.
The next morning, they will begin their day at 6.45, setting off for their first round after washing faces with cold water. At their first stop, they will buy a breakfast of paranthas with curd and pickle, and if lucky, may get a break of 30-45 minutes during the day at the Kullu bus station to freshen up at some public toilets. The bus stand is under construction, and there is no washroom for HRTC staff currently. For days sometimes, say Singh and Kumar, they go without a bath.
At Chhaman, villagers say they are bound by “tradition”. Asking the government to make arrangements for the drivers and conductors, Rajesh Singh, a teacher at a private school, says, “Every day, drivers and conductors of different castes arrive. It is not possible for us to determine their castes. We have to clean our homes if a Scheduled Caste enters; sometimes we impose a fine too.”
Conductor Hem Raj was fined after he went to the room that his driver, an upper caste, had rented, in Khanipand village of Lagh valley. The owner of the room came to know and demanded Rs 10,000. The owner has since stopped renting his room to the driver too. Khanipand is dominated by Rajputs.
In his complaint to HRTC Manager D K Narang, Hem Raj wrote that he had no time to take up the matter with officials due to a death at home, and hence paid up. He and the driver handed over the Rs 8,000 they had collected as bus fare that day, while Hem Raj paid some of his own money. Narang forwarded the complaint to Kullu Deputy Commissioner Yunus Khan, to take action, and Khan ordered the Regional Transport Officer to inquire. On December 1, the officer met villagers to record their statement.
As HRTC Manager Narang regrets that “villagers here are more into caste then humanity”, Ashok Kumar, a government official who is in-charge of Kullu bus stand, says things have to change. “Out of 235 buses at the Kullu HRTC depot, around 100 ply on 70 routes that are 16 km to 100 km long. These buses make two to four rounds daily and halt for the night at their last destination so as to resume early next day.” Should they choose to return to Kullu and then head back again in the morning, Kumar points out, it would cost the government as buses would run empty.
Chande Ram, HRTC Union President, says officials would realise what drivers and conductors go through only if they had to spend the night on buses, going on to warn that a strike by them would bring Kullu to a halt.
Kullu MLA Sunder Singh Thakur, who belongs to the Congress, insists things are changing. Pointing out that at one time foreigners used to be considered “untouchables”, he says, “Now things have changed largely, though there are some villages where people still go by their traditions.”
While local Dalit leader Ram Singh, who contested on a BJP ticket in 2012, says he won’t speak on the matter, another Dalit leader, Puran Chand, agrees “it is difficult to get rid of the caste system completely”.
HRTC drivers and conductors also work for days on end without offs. Currently, against a requirement of 550 drivers and conductors, there are 420. Jai Singh and Manohar Kumar last got leave in October.
DC Khan says they are trying to arrange panchayat ghars and other government buildings in villages for drivers and conductors to stay in at night. Fateh Chand, the Scheduled Caste pradhan of Tandari panchayat under which Khanipand falls, says they are ready to provide the panchayat ghars. However, he accuses Narang of having “defamed” Khanipand with his letter to the DC. “People of lower castes come to Khanipand village but it is the choice of an individual whether to allow them to enter their houses or not,” he argues.
Meanwhile, it’s been 10-odd days since Khan asked sub-divisional magistrates and block panchayat officers to arrange night stays. There has been no response yet.