Image source: onmanorama

Kahini Ojha

The initial days of unlock 1.0 have proven crucial for the transport sector. With no or minimum revenue generated during the lockdown and increased cost of maintenance for disinfecting and repairing vehicle body parts, which were not in use for weeks, the transport operators are already in huge loss.

Members of the Bus and Car Operators Confederation of India recently suggested the Minister of Road Transport and Highways of India to extend interest payment exemptions and deferring State taxes in view of the loss incurred over the past few months.[i] Transport departments of various State governments such as Odisha, Kerala and Karnataka increased the fare of buses temporarily, though the Kerala High Court has recently put a stay on the bus fare hike in the State and a final decision would be taken by the government after a report is submitted by an expert committee regarding the same.[ii] West Bengal is an exception where the government has decided not to increase the fare even for private operators.[iii] Pre-COVID, buses used to have full occupancy and now with the norms on limit on the number of commuters, it has become a herculean task to implement, manage and strike a balance between the passenger demand and supply.

OlaShare has been suspended, OlaOutstation is not resuming immediately and Uber has extended special services under the UberEssential and UberMedic.[iv] The cab-aggregators had the advantage of partnering with various companies during the lockdown and provided essential services instead of keeping the business at a standstill for nearly two months. As of now there has not been any plan for the cab-aggregators to change the fare.

Risks in Public Transport Operations

In India, public transport accounts to just 18.1% of total work trips. Approximately 70 million people commute by 1,30,000 buses daily. [v] Thus, the foremost risk lies in travelling on crowded public transport. But with the new norm, as vehicles ply with reduced capacity it is sure to affect the operational efficiency of the operators and lead to a reduction in the number of available options in public transport. Physical contact and contact with common surfaces[vi] are the major risks associated with travelling in public transport.Risks associated with cash transactions cannot also be ignored. Despite demonetisation and its subsequent quest to promote digital payments, cash is still widely used as the most common mode of payment in India.[vii] Thus, switching over to a complete non-cash transaction mode would be a challenge.

China had installed several health control checkpoints for checking temperature of passengers[viii] and if similar technique is to be implemented in India, it would significantly increase the cost of operations.

Recommendations to Overcome the Risks

Public transport operators need to assure more sanitised, clean and less dense seating[ix] for passengers. Like most of the European cities, floor markings indicating the distance that passengers should maintain can be used.[x] However, there are already cases of social distancing norms being flouted in various Indian cities. Standard Operating Procedures such as keeping the windows open, avoiding the use of air-conditioners and using the rear door of the bus for boarding and the front door for exiting to avoid clashing of passengers at the bus stops should be followed.[xi] To gain the confidence of the passengers to use any public transport mode, visible safety precautions (e.g., avoiding plying of public transport in containment zones), checking health status of passengers and strict following of hygiene protocols shall be beneficial. Digital technology can be efficiently used in some of these fields in the form of vehicle tracking apps or health-related apps (e.g., Aarogya Setu).

To help operators tide over the crisis, the government should initiate financial measures in the form of road tax waiver or interest on loan waiver. Immediate financial analyses should be done to get an estimate of the loss in revenue, gaps in payment and liquidity needs of the public transport operators; accordingly instruments for liquidity support can be deployed by the government.[xii] The USA has granted $25billion as emergency relief fund to the transit agencies from the US CARES Act to prevent the transport operators from going bankrupt.[xiii] Similarly, India can dedicate a significant percentage of the funds collected in PM Cares to support the public transport operators. The funds allotted to other infrastructure projects related to transport such as road/flyover constructions could be redirected to fund public transport operations till the situation gets stabilised.

Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) had initially issued daily bus passes to avoid direct contact, but the minimum fare set (Rs 70) was an unreasonable amount for the commuters, which did not take into account the distance commuted. QR code scan can also be used in cashless transactions, but an important point to be noted is that a great share of users of the public transport are people with lower economic background, who may not have a suitable device to avail such services. Another option for contactless transactions could be the card system of payment (e.g., through barcode scanning or similar), which recharge facilities.

Introduction of congestion charges, increasing parking charges and similar strategies could discourage the use of private vehicles. The amount collected from this could contribute to a ‘Public Transport Fund’, which could be used to sustain the operations of the public transport.

Rajasthan Transport Infrastructure Development Fund was created from stamp duty surcharge and green tax to develop the basic transport infrastructure, of which 75 per cent goes to the ULBs and 25 per cent for the improvement of transport.[xiv] As a long-term measure, other States of India can create a similar fund to help the ULBs in maintaining an emergency fund which can support during humanitarian crises like the present situation.

Let us hope this pandemic will pave way for innovations facilitating new lifestyle changes.

Kahini Ojha is Research Intern at CPPR. Views expressed are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.


References

[i]Dutta, Anisha. 2020. “Covid-19 Lockdown: Public Transport may Resume Soon, Says Nitin Gadkari.” Hindustan Times, May 7, 2020. Accessed May 26, 2020. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/public-transport-may-resume-soon-gadkari/story-NwQ95NOEXXyNgs3vhb260N.html.

[ii]“Kerala HC Stays Bus Fare Hike, Govt to Make Decision Based on Expert Committee Report.” 2020. Onmanorama, 12 June 2020. Accessed June 26, 2020. https://www.onmanorama.com/news/kerala/2020/06/12/kerala-high-court-stays-bus-fare-hike.html.

[iii]“No Hike in Bus Fares, WBTC to Run Buses on All Important Routes: Minister.” 2020. The Times of India, May 16, 2020. Accessed May 27, 2020. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/no-hike-in-bus-fares-wbtc-to-run-buses-on-all-important-routes-minister/articleshow/75778613.cms.

[iv]“Coronavirus Lockdown: Ola, Uber Resume Operations in These Cities; Check Out Full List.” Business Today, May 4, 2020. Accessed May 26, 2020. https://www.businesstoday.in/current/corporate/coronavirus-lockdown-ola-uber-resume-operations-in-these-cities-check-out-full-list/story/402834.html.

[v]Singh, Jaspal. 2016. “City Public Transportation Developments in India.” Intelligent Transport, December 14, 2016. Accessed April 29, 2020. https://www.intelligenttransport.com/transport-articles/21458/city-public-transportation-india/.

[vi]International Association of Public Transport. “Management of Covid-19 Guidelines for Public Transport Operators.” International Association of Public Transport, February 2020. Accessed April 29, 2020. https://www.uitp.org/sites/default/files/cck-focus-papers-files/Corona%20Virus_EN.pdf .

[vii]“Cash Transactions up by 17%, Says RBI Report.” 2019. The Telegraph, August 29, 2019. Accessed April 29, 2020. https://www.telegraphindia.com/business/cash-transactions-up-by-17-says-rbi-report/cid/1701221.

[viii]Wong, Yale Zhuxiao. 2020. “COVID-19 Risk on Public Transport: What We can Learn from Overseas.” The University of Sydney. Accessed April 29, 2020. https://www.sydney.edu.au/news-opinion/news/2020/03/20/covid-19-risk-on-public-transport-what-we-can-learn-from-overseas.html.

[ix]Enoch, Marcus, and James Warren. 2020. “Coronavirus is a Once in a Lifetime Chance to Reshape How We Travel.” The Conversation, April 3, 2020. Accessed April 11, 2020. https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-is-a-once-in-a-lifetime-chance-to-reshape-how-we-travel-134764.

[x]Wong, Yale Z. 2020. “To Limit Coronavirus Risks on Public Transport, Here’s What We Can Learn from Efforts Overseas.” The Conversation, March 16, 2020. Accessed April 30, 2020. https://theconversation.com/to-limit-coronavirus-risks-on-public-transport-heres-what-we-can-learn-from-efforts-overseas-133764.

[xi]GIZ. 2020. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for Bus Transport Post COVID 19 Lockdown.

[xii]Rubiano, Leonardo Canon, and Georges Darido. 2020. “Protecting Public Transport from the Coronavirusand from Financial Collapse.” World Bank Blogs, April 24, 2020. Accessed April 30, 2020. https://blogs.worldbank.org/transport/protecting-public-transport-coronavirus-and-financial-collapse.

[xiii]Welle, Ben, and Avelleda Sergio. 2020. “Safer, More Sustainable Transport in Post-COVID-19 World.” TheCityFix, April 23, 2020. Accessed May 1, 2020. https://thecityfix.com/blog/coronavirus-public-transport-stimulus-packages-ben-welle-sergio-avelleda/.

[xiv]“RTIDF to Help Municipal Bodies in Infra Developement.” The Times of India, August 29, 2016. Accessed May 26, 2020. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/jaipur/RTIDF-to-help-municipal-bodies-in-infra-developement/articleshow/53908508.cms.

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