The Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR) hosted a live discussion on “Private Bus Operations in Kerala: Challenges and Way Ahead” on June 17, 2020. Mr Gokuldas (State Secretary, Kerala Bus Transport Association), Mr KM Nawas (Ernakulam District Secretary, Kerala Bus Transport Association), Mr BJ Antony (Former Senior Deputy Transport Commissioner) and Mr MB Sathyan (State President of Private Bus Operators Association) were the guest speakers and Dr Dhanuraj (Chairman, Centre for Public Policy Research) was the moderator.

By introducing the guests, Dr Dhanuraj highlighted the need for open discussions to understand the multi-faceted problems faced by the private bus sector and to be able to find solutions for them.

Mr Sathyan, while elaborating on the issues concerning the private bus sector, said that the Public Transport Sector needs to be inclusive of the Private Bus transport along with KSRTC and Metro. A multi-stakeholder unbiased approach has to be taken by the government to promote the public Transport Sector by resolving the current issues faced by the private bus operators. He also pointed out that the government should relook into the relevance of nationalisation schemes. The frequent increase in the price of diesel and other necessary services without a proportionate increase in bus fares and the unfair student concession system are the major issues the private bus sector is confronted with. He also emphasised the need to conduct a proper study to understand the requirement of the number of services on each route for efficient fleet management. He mentioned that policies and notifications must be updated considering the current situation so that frequent hike in bus fares can be avoided. He said that facing huge losses, many people are discontinuing the business.

Mr Gokuldas echoed the same sentiments and called for a comprehensive transport policy. He indicated the biased approach of the government in providing financial support to KSRTC over private buses, including subsidies, even then KSRTC is in loss. He urged the government to extend these benefits to the private sector too, so that at least workers’ daily wage can be paid. About four lakh people are dependent on private buses, including the owners, employees and associated sectors. He called attention to the recent media report of the suicide of a private bus employee during the lockdown. He also warned that if corporations take over the sector, the impact will be severe for students and elderly who largely depend on the sector.

Talking about the challenges before the bus operators in light of COVID-19, Mr Nawas said that there has been a significant reduction in the number of passengers compared to the pre-COVID situation. To balance this, the government had approved a bus fare hike, which was removed later. He pointed at the lack of governmental support for the private bus operators in the form of policy changes.

Mr Antony said that to have an unbiased discussion, representatives from KSRTC also should have been included. He suggested a few measures to solve some of the perennial issues in the sector. The government can exempt the revenue tax from diesel and provide subsidy to private buses. Regarding the students’ ticket fare, he said that concession-deserving students should be identified. With the help of technology, methods can be devised to take full fare from students and the amount after concession can be credited to their accounts by the government. He said that increasing bus charges is not the solution.

He also shared his concerns about the scientific soundness of the nationalisation of routes, the lack of transportation experts and detailed studies on the sector. Mr Anthony said that though route rationalisation is a good concept, the problem arises as the RTOs do not have the power to change the routes. With the amendments in Motor Vehicle Act, 2019, the State has been given more power but it is not equipped to make the necessary changes. The Motor Vehicle departments can effectively implement policies on last-mile connectivity and urban transit (the amendments in the MV ACT 2019), thus taking a more empowered role in facilitating the “mobility of people”. He also pointed out the lack of a concerned body knowledgeable enough to provide insights into the problems and suggested that think-tanks like CPPR can help the government in studying the situation and providing useful information for forming new practical policies. He also acknowledged the need for a regulatory authority.

Regarding the existing unhealthy competition among private buses, Mr Sathyan said that measures were taken to curb such attitudes with the introduction of punching stations. He agreed that such rivalry or competition will prove disastrous. Replying to a question on whether it will be useful to consider the kilometres ran instead of the number of passengers for deciding a fare rate, he raised doubts about its practicality.

The private bus operators welcome the prospects of transitioning to e-buses, even though it will incur expenses, provided the government’s help in getting loans and other supporting measures, said Mr Gokuldas. E-buses may have many benefits, but it is the financial stability and the ability to provide fair wages to their employees which are the major concerns, and for which the government’s support is required. He pointed out that the daily collection, which was earlier in the range of Rs. 10,100–14000, has come down to Rs. 7000. He also said that the friction between passengers and employees arises only in the case of student’s concession.

Mr Nawas said that compared to the prospects of Silver Line, e-buses can be more efficient, profitable and can cater to more passengers. In the 12th Urban Mobility India Conference, Rs 5700 crore was earmarked for the private sector. Such funds can be channelised for the betterment of the private sector.

When asked if organisations like PBOA are interested in taking up KSRTC buses on lease, Mr Sathyan said that they could, but if it is profitable to both parties. Mr Anthony said that combining both KSRTC and private buses is a profitable solution as efficiency and operational cost of private buses are much better than that of KSRTC. He asked the bus operators to take advantage of alternative solutions like using cost-efficient fuels, adopting fleet management strategies and possibilities of generating profit from advertisement.  He also underlined the need to relook into students’ concession policies.

Dr Dhanuraj concluded the session by pointing out that there is a lack of public knowledge on the issues faced by the private bus sector and hoped such open discussions in future would help to bridge this gap.

The report is prepared by Meghna Anilkumar, Research Intern with CPPR-Centre for Urban Studies.

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