Passengers waiting to board private buses. (Photo Credit:MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • Why have state governments across India turned enemies of private bus operators?

Of late, something peculiar has been happening with our buses. A rather recurring incident, it’s slowly happening in one state after another. Governments are targeting private buses, for various reasons. One question comes to the fore: Why buses? What wrong have they done? Shouldn’t the government be promoting buses instead of pulling them off the roads?

Karnataka sets the ball rolling

Starting in June 2016, Karnataka decided to reintroduce an eight-year old policy to nationalise all bus routes. The proposal was to prevent private buses from operating across all routes in the state, a harsher version of the previous government’s plan to block them from selected routes across the state.

(Both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu decided that ‘enough is enough’, and private players were killing their operations simply because they were more efficient, and thus began to crackdown upon private players in the carpooling sector too).

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Now Uttar Pradesh and Punjab too?

The last two days haven’t seen a happy story either for private bus operators. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s government has begun cracking down on ‘neta buses’, or private buses that operate sans permits across the state. At the same time, close to 9,000 buses belonging to 100 operators in Punjab are set to lose their permits, including those operated by former deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal’s Orbit Aviation and Dabwali Transport.

And then comes Kerala…

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Kerala too, decided to tread along the same path. The state government decided that private buses couldn’t travel more than 140km within the state. Given that an end to end trip in Kerala sees its cities separated by more than 140km, (Kasaragod to Kozhikode to Kochi to Thiruvananthapuram), this is not really a good idea.

Why was this restriction imposed? The state-run KSRTC was losing out to private buses and therefore needed to be given a monopoly.

Why are private buses being targeted?

The case of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, however are different. In Punjab, these buses had the requisite permits, that had been issued under the erstwhile Shiromani Akali Dal- Bharatiya Janata Party (SAD-BJP) coalition. In Uttar Pradesh, on the other hand, the buses were operating illegally, without any permits, and did not pay any taxes to the government.

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Under Section 99 of the Motor Vehicles Act of 1988, a Central Law, states can nationalise routes by issuing a notification, which Uttar Pradesh has done in the past. The government crackdown, can possibly considered as a first step towards a better system. While the government is justified in stopping these private players plying illegally and recover their dues, the next step would to begin deregulation of services.

The case in Punjab is more serious. According to sources in the government, these cancellations would happen in line with Captain Amarinder Singh’s new transport policy. Officials also stated that the cause of this permit-scrapping is the fact that some of the buses operated beyond their permitted routes, to the tune of 15 to 24 km. That’s right, the government wants to cancel permits because buses ran 20 km beyond their permitted route.

To give a fair and quick comparison, a bus operated by the Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC) attached to the Parel Depot in Mumbai that plies on the Borivali (suburb of Mumbai) to Swargate (a locality in Pune) route, travels 174km from Borivali to Swargate, but has to travel an additional 34km to reach the depot in Parel. Most buses operated by private parties have to travel longer to reach a depot or garage, mainly due to regulatory issues or lack of land availability in prime areas of a city. When a government bus can do this, why not a private bus? Further, documents state that the three Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) Punjab Roadways, PunBus, and Punjab Roadways Transport Corporation have been making losses due to the emergence of private players. While it is secondary as to whether the SAD government restricted the growth of PSUs in favour of private buses, it does give a clear image of the scenario - the government could not keep up with the private sector and now wants to monopolise the market.

Why are buses so important?

As R Jagannathan had earlier stated, the ‘future of urban transit’ is the bus, due to its flexibility of being used anywhere and anytime. Unlike metro rail lines, which are long term projects, buses can fare well in the short, medium and long term. The exact same reasoning can also be applied to long distance routes. Given how our trains are notoriously overcrowded and overbooked, many people are highly dependent on these private buses because they often serve areas that are not served by government services. While incumbent railway minister Suresh Prabhu has changed the Railways’ focus from new trains to capacity addition, by expanding railway lines, electrifying them and sanctioning newer lines, railway lines are still long term projects. Aviation is totally out of the scope here since it only serves extremely long distances. A bus trip from Mumbai to Pune or Bengaluru to Chennai is significantly faster by bus than by flight or rail.

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Are buses really that important?

Buses form the basis for millions of people to travel. They may be farmers, or rich businessmen. Buses also form the livelihood for other people. The combined ecosystem not only includes the owners and operators of the buses, but the drivers, conductors, people selling their wares at intermediary point and many more. A 2007 study at the Rutgerz University stated that buses carry around 90 per cent of the populace. A decade later, the number is bound to have gone up.

So isn’t this crackdown on private buses good?

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There are several arguments made against private buses, from rash and negligent driving, bad quality of buses, and cheating staff. The situation is no different in government buses. It is not difficult to find a government bus with metal rods protruding in Chennai, drivers of KSRTC buses in Kerala are often known for their rash driving, and Bengaluru’s BMTC conductors are notorious for either not giving a ticket and pocketing the fare, or not returning change.

Interactions with officials in the government made one thing clear: no private buses. The reasoning behind it? Some officials argue that the government is making a loss, while some argue that the employees of private body may quit the job anytime or new people may join in anytime. Labour flexibility quickly turns from being a solution to being a problem. Further, government employees, with the housing and other benefits taken care off, rarely get penalised for underperforming or providing bad services. What they do get penalised for, is for matters that are not their fault, such as someone else hitting their bus, or a certain component within the bus (like an LED display) malfunctioning.

But aren’t all the people behind this violating the law?

Now, it is important to ask why these ‘illegal’ services came up in the first place. Let us discard Punjab for a second, since this seems to more of a case of vendetta politics by attacking those who received permits under the erstwhile government. In the case of Uttar Pradesh, it is obvious: corruption, and the bonhomie between the operators and the politicians (hence the phrase, neta bus). Over time, these illegal bus services ended up employing people, and serving commuters. A corrupt owner or organisational head certainly does not mean the entire organisation is corrupt. Uttam Khobragade, the former General Manager of the Brihanmumbai Electricity and Transport (BEST) Undertaking was named in the Adarsh scam and was also behind the procurement of fake Kinglong buses that Mumbai today suffers with. Does this imply that the rest of the staff from conductors to drivers to depot staff in India’s older public transport agency are corrupt? It does not.

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So what should be the ideal situation?

What Punjab should do is stop harassing operators because they drove a little extra. What Uttar Pradesh should do is start regularising illegal services, issue permits, make them pay. If they violate rules, suspend the permits, ground the fleet and don’t let them violate the law again.

States should take a leaf out of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh’s book. Madhya Pradesh, has deregulated routes and allowed for permits to be issued online. Maharashtra went a step extreme by allowing private buses to operate in the Mumbai Metropolitan region, sans permit. Not a good idea, since it pretty much results in Delhi’s Blueline situation.

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When all this is apparent, why are governments stifling private players? Where the government could have set up competent regulatory authorities and allowed competition to flourish, they have chosen to stifle private operators.Citizens should be allowed to choose services they like, without having to be pushed into accepting just the government services. The freedom of choice is paramount in a free and open democratic society.

At the end of the day, transport is nobody’s charity and everybody’s business.

Also Read

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Private Buses Can Ease Traffic Woes; Government Won’t Allow Them To Operate

Karnataka: Govt Wants To Nationalise All Bus Routes. Here’s Why It Is A Bad Idea

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