Thursday, November 14, 2013

The state of inter-city, inter-state road transport in India

Yet another bus has met with an accident near Haveri on it’s way from Bangalore to Mumbai, lots of human lives lost, this happened yesterday. Recently we heard about the tragic death of close to 50 passengers heading back to their home towns for Diwali on the ill fated luxury bus that went from Bangalore to Hyderabad. Sometime back a bus fell off a bridge into a gorge killing a lot of passengers travelling in it, this bus was bound to Shirdi, most passengers would have been pilgrims. This writer has been a first hand witness to a gory accident near Chithode on NH 47 on 4th Nov 2011 involving a truck carrying airline fuel and a luxury bus full of passengers from Bangalore headed to Coimbatore. The bus caught fire after colliding with the tanker and in the ensuing chaos a lot of lives were lost.

The blame usually is first placed on these new hi-tech buses: Volvo, Mercedes Benz, Corona, which are well equipped to deal with emergencies better than Ashok Leyland, Eicher or TATA buses. These hi-tech buses have superior suspension, use fire retardant materials for their construction and have excellent automated mechanisms to manoeuvre the vehicle and bring it to a sudden stop if needed. Drivers are the number one reasons for accidents and it’s not like any driver would want to crash his bus wantonly. Most drivers are contracted or paid per trip and they stand to gain if they keep driving without taking a rest. That results in fatigue and therefore misjudgement which leads to a fatal accident. But there is a larger lacuna that is being exploited to the hilt by greedy bus operators and that is of supply and demand.

Road transport between states used to be exclusive domains of the state governments with the state run transport corporations plying buses connecting cities, usually as reciprocals almost exclusively. All this changed drastically in the late nineties when private bus operators began plying buses exploiting loopholes in the Motor Vehicles Act which allowed them to run buses on hire or for tours which was used as a shroud to run regular inter-city or inter-state services. This sector has grown into a fierce monster that had made millionaires out of bus operators, earned lots of taxes and bribes for the state’s apparatus, helps the well heeled reach their destinations quickly and comfortably and yet is a scary ecosystem that the state has no jurisdiction over anymore.

In the late 90’s, this writer solely depended on SETC (erstwhile Thiruvalluvar) buses to commute between Madras (Chennai today) and Coimbatore. There were two other buses operated by Cheran Transport Corporation (known as TNSTC – Cbe now) between these two cities. The total seats available on a Friday or Sunday back then was less than 250. Compare that to the 1900 seats across the 50 buses that ply between the two cities today, you can imagine the scale at which buses are run and the economy that flourishes as a result. Entry taxes at check posts, bakeries, hotels / canteens, petrol bunks, toll gates, drivers, cleaners, automobile workshops are examples of some areas where money flows in a licit manner. But there is a  large chunk of revenue that is made illicitly primarily by the State apparatus: Transport department, Commercial Taxes department, Police etc.

The bulk of our country still commutes long distances by train. One can only imagine the level of bribes that must be exchanging hands in the Railway Ministry to ensure there is always a supply demand deficit in the Railways  to ensure the crowd that doesn’t make it onto trains gets to use the services offered by the private road transportation industry. Their pricing is based on whim. How else can one fathom the cost of tickets going up by a factor of 2 or 3 when it’s a long holiday weekend? Are these buses licensed to transport cargo, which they load to the brim most of the days in every space the bus has and on it’s roof? Is it completely legal in selling tickets in the name of “conducted tour” but what they are essentially doing is infringe into the domain of state transport? How does one explain the silence of the state government, every single state in the country is united in this cause, and the state transport employee’s trade unions in this domain? A lot of questions remain unanswered, will the State wake up and listen?

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