At a bus stop in Mudiali on Thursday, Sunita Devi waited for nearly 35 minutes before she could board a bus.
On other days, the woman from Bansdroni, who works part-time at a company, would have had to wait for over 55 minutes, she said.
Throughout Calcutta, commuters had to put up with a frustrating wait as only a handful of private buses and minibuses rolled out despite the unions agreeing to resume normality from Thursday.
The situation, however, was slightly better during the day because only government buses were on the roads till Wednesday.
Around 700 of the 9,000-odd private buses in the city and its adjoining areas were on the roads on Thursday, transport department officials said.
Bus union leaders said most of the vehicles were not fit to be on the roads because of lack of maintenance for more than two months, since the lockdown forced by the novel coronavirus had started.
And to make matters worse, several workers refused to resume duty fearing ostracisation once they returned home, mostly to suburbs in North and South 24-Parganas, the leaders said.
Buses on some routes — including Barasat-Botanical Garden, Belghoria-Golf Green, Lake Town-Kalikapur and Metiabruz-Shyambazar — were only a third of their full fleet strength on the roads.
On some routes — for instance, Howrah Maidan-Salt Lake — vehicles started showing snags as they prepared to roll out, forcing the owners to decide against running buses on Thursday.
“It is unlikely that there would be a sea change in a day and all private buses would start plying immediately,” said Rahul Chatterjee, of the Bus Minibus Samanay Samity. “Getting staff to resume their duty will remain a challenge.”
A section of bus owners said they would rather wait for the government to increase fares before rolling out buses. “It costs around Rs 5,000 to fix a snag. Where will we get this money from?” asked the owner of a bus on route 214A, which plies between Sajiarhat in Madhyamgram and Babughat.
“Now, a bus owner doesn’t even get Rs 500 after paying his staff their dues. So what’s the point?”
Others said if their staff were willing, they would run a few trips in the morning and evening and save on the fuel in the afternoon.
“Private bus owners should have clearly said they needed a day or two before they could resume their services,” said Pritam Das, who was spotted waiting for a bus near KC Das in Esplanade.
“I have been waiting for a bus to Barrackpore for over half an hour now and there aren’t any.”
Transport department officials began distributing masks and sanitisers to bus owners to help staff overcome the fear of contracting the coronavirus. Over 1,000 masks, sanitiser bottles and face shields were distributed on Thursday.
While private buses were a few, state-run buses were visible in greater numbers on Thursday than on other days. Transport department officials said more AC buses and battery-run buses were put into service to fill the demand-supply gap.
“We have decided to withdraw state buses from the duty of ferrying health department officials and replace them with hired private buses,” said a transport department official. “This will add another 150-200 buses to our fleet.”