Private bus services are the strength of public transport system in Kerala but the state of its affairs is pitiable. Reckless driving of these bus services exists, because of the unhealthy competition among the individual bus services. Poorly trained and immature drivers are also the cause for the accidents involving private buses. Fierce arguments and quarrels between staff of rival bus services are the order of the day. Most buses carry goondas (some are called timekeepers! and at times bus owners themselves) to manhandle the staff of the competing bus service. In the long run, neither the passengers nor the bus operators are gaining anything out of this unhealthy competition. Increased use of fuel, wear & tear of spare parts, etc reduces the fitness of the buses quite early.
The authorities remain helpless in controlling their over-speed and the ill behaviour of bus staff towards the passengers. (Or the authorities may be happy by allotting new routes and time schedules to the preference of bus owners.) Bus operators often break the trips that give less collection, especially the night trips. Thanks to this situation, more and more passengers are tempted to own private vehicles for their easy transportation. Those passengers who can’t afford to buy private vehicles are left to hang on to these bus services even if they are physically ill. In other words, lack of an efficient public transport system is the reason for the proliferation of private vehicles (especially two-wheelers) on our roads.
Benefits of bus and cost of road accidents
Studies show that, the comparative fuel costs of a car and a two wheeler to meet the same travel demand as a bus is 11.8 times and 6.8 times respectively and occupies 38 times and 54 times more road space respectively. Replacement of a single bus by an equivalent number of two wheelers would add to air pollution by 27 per cent and cars would cause 17 per cent more pollution. Kerala State has nearly three percent of the country’s population, but it has recorded nearly 12 percent of the country’s road accidents. 32 % of the accidents involve two-wheelers, 19% car/jeep & 18% involve auto-rickshaws. Some studies put the social cost of road accidents each year in Kerala as high as Rs. 1,300 crores.
Mode of investments and hardships
It might be ironical to note that at a time when NRIs and retired people could not find ample opportunities for investing safely the money they have saved, many bus owners depend on private banks (called 'blade companies’) for their finances through hire purchase schemes. (Some of the banks charge as large as 30% per annum towards interest and that too at a flat rate -double the rate if we compare it with diminishing loan amount rates. When the RBI stipulated a limit of 12% for loan interest, these 'blades' put the remaining 18% as service charges and under other heads. So a bus owner opting for a 3-year repayment period ends up paying almost double the loan amount to the bank. For defaulters, they charge heavy penal interest and that too under different heads. If there is defaulting for more instalments, their bus will be seized, irrespective of whether any passengers are travelling or not, by goondas contracted by the bank.) Thus, the passengers face hardships of goonda-raj along with that of the fierce competition to maximise the collection in each trip.
Can we ignore the industry
Now the question is, how long the Kerala Government can afford to ignore an industry which interacts directly with people across the length and breadth of the state and which is worth at least Rs.2,000 crore in investment with a daily collection of at least Rs. 10 crores? (Considering 25,000 private buses - as per 2003 statistics of Kerala Government web site and assuming a minimum collection of Rs.4,000 per bus on an average.)
Early birds want all the worms!
Kerala Private Bus Operators Coordination Committee has been demanding, among other things, freezing the issuance of new bus permits with a reference to 'Tamil Nadu model' nationalisation of routes. (It may be noted that the share of private bus services in TN is only one-fourth and various corporations own the remaining services, whereas in Kerala private operators own about 85% of the services. The presence of KSRTC, which owns the remaining 15%, is felt only in the southern districts and Thiruvananthapuram City. Travel pattern of passengers, density of railway route length, etc of TN are different from that of Kerala). Their demand gives the feeling that their buses are not getting sufficient passengers to fill up the seats, but in reality, most buses travel with more passengers than they are allowed to. The demand is only an indication of how fierce the competition is. It is only recently that private buses were allowed to operate in Thiruvananthapuram City through a court order, before which only KSRTC was allowed to operate and KSRTC could not meet the growing demands of the city.
The Solution: Combine all private bus services
The best way to avoid the unhealthy competition is to combine these bus services to form a single company (or two companies for a healthy competition). The bus owners shall hold shares in the company equivalent to the total value of the buses they were possessing at the time of the merger and receive their dividends without much trouble. The merger can bring down the operating expenses of these services by way of bulk purchase of diesel, quality spare parts, etc. The quality and safety of the services can be improved by utilising professional management techniques right from the bodybuilding of the buses to rationalisation of schedules. The bus operating staff will benefit more because they don’t have to quarrel with other staff and there will be increased job security for them (individual bus owners usually don’t own a bus for long periods). Constant training for the staff and incorporation of latest technologies can make travelling a pleasant experience. Such a company can be made to commit social obligations like providing bus services to non-represented areas, say 10% of total route length.
Such a company can build bus stations, etc with modern facilities, without straining the resources of local bodies or government and can also take up building & maintenance of roads, parking facilities, etc. It can improve the public transport system further by investing in metro railways in all the major cities.
Public transport in Singapore
In Singapore, just two companies (TIBS and SBS Transit) operate the bus services and one of the companies now operates also the recently commissioned fully automatic underground Mass Rapid Transit ( MRT) train service of the North East Line. Besides having a good road network (the total length of three Expressways is about 150km whereas the length of the island is about 43km!), Singapore uses a very conscious approach in terms of public transport. The Govt discourages ownership of Private vehicles like cars by imposing huge duties. The roads with heavy traffic are regulated at peak hours through Electronic Road Pricing (ERP), so those who really don’t want to use a particular road will take alternate roads with less traffic to reach their destination. Bulk of the passengers depends now on the MRT trains, which was introduced a few years ago.