School bus operators stare at a crisis situation

Operators forced to switch jobs to tide over financial liabilities standing in the way of getting vehicles back on road 

Updated - May 13, 2022 07:24 pm IST

Published - May 13, 2022 07:18 pm IST - KOCHI

For over two decades Shali V.A. made a living operating a private carrier to take students to schools.

Then the pandemic set in two years ago, and schools were closed down indefinitely, throwing his life into complete disarray. Since then, he has donned various roles he was hardly familiar with, in his desperation to stay afloat.

He had been to painting jobs, construction work, and even tried a hand at welding before settling in as a driver for a cement unit a few months ago.

“With schools set to reopen, parents are again contacting me for the conveyance of their children, though the financial liability of getting the vehicle back on the road is something I can ill afford now. But I don’t want to miss that job either. After all, it has been my life for over 20 years,” said Shali.

Nithin P. Prasad, a 32-year-old from Eroor, had turned driver for schoolchildren 11 years ago. He had even bought a 17-seater mini bus entailing a loan of ₹8 lakh eyeing school conveyance and other private trips in the gap in between. “Loan repayment remains disrupted for two years now. I even tried to sell the vehicle, but there were no takers. I even asked financiers to seize it, as there seemed little scope for repaying the remaining loan of over ₹3 lakh,” said Nithin who is now serving as a driver of a rented cab at Thripunithura.

Whether out of sympathy or not, financiers, however, have advised him to make a last-ditch effort by trying private school trips again when classes restart next month. But Nithin is not sure if he wants to risk the existing job even as he remains sceptic about the potential restrictions that could be imposed on private carriers transporting students. Also, the maintenance cost of the vehicle that has been staying off the road for over two years now also holds him back.

Susan Santhosh from Eroor used to have four vehicles for conveyance of students. Since the pandemic, she has sold two, and the remaining two are off the road under tax exemption. “We will have to hike considerably the monthly charge per student from what it was before in view of the frequent fuel price hike. We are waiting for a clear picture about the school bus fee to fix our fee proportionately. It remains to be seen how many parents can afford it,” she said.

After over a two-year-long disruption, Anoop K.E. from Thripunithura resumed conveying students when the Kendriya Vidyalaya reopened this February. But he opted for a rented vehicle, while his own vehicle gathered dust at home after breaks in loan repayment. “For a while after the COVID outbreak, I simply sat at home. Then I started alternating between a workshop and a spare parts shop. I plan to resume school conveyance but has no clue how to clear the loan dues and raise funds to get the vehicle in shape,” said Anoop.

Sreekumar M.A. is being called by parents who used to avail his service in the past. But the vehicle owner for whom he used to operate on a monthly salary basis is yet to decide whether to resume operations or not. “I will have to arrange a vehicle on my own to resume the service in which case the risk will be entirely mine. I don’t know whether I should risk my present job at an automobile workshop for such an arrangement,” he said.

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