Private bus services on a slippery slope

Rickety rides ahead:  A private bus worker waits eagerly for commuters at Mananchira in Kozhikode.

Rickety rides ahead: A private bus worker waits eagerly for commuters at Mananchira in Kozhikode.

Vishnu, a 55-year old man from Kozhikode’s Vellannoor village, once owned five private buses on the Mavoor-Kozhikode route. Believe your ears, the ill-fated entrepreneur is now a salesperson at a local textile shop in Malappuram district.

Mr. Vishnu, who quit the sinking business nearly five years ago, is broken as he owes a huge sum to various banks. Even as the State government stands with an indifferent shrug, he is only one among several such unfortunate entreprenuers behind the wheel, claim other bus operators.

The number of private buses now in service is below 1,800 in Kozhikode district, and its impact is visible in the shrinking public transportation network. Nearly 100 buses temporarily keep off loss-making routes. A few other vehicle owners often resort to the trickery of suspending the scheduled trips to rural areas citing “mechanical issues” as it can save them the operational cost.

Bus operators say that around 600 private buses had stopped service in Kozhikode district in the past 15 years alone, which has mainly affected commuters in village areas. With the cancellation of several schedules, private bus journey after 8 p.m from Kozhikode city to interior areas like Thottilpalam, Kuttiyadi, Mukkom and Thiruvambadi routes is hardly possible. The high operational cost and limited revenue prevent many bus owners from resuming their services.

Hefty operational cost

Abdul Nazar, district president of the Kerala Bus Operators’ Association, says the owner of a 48-seat bus will have to remit ₹70,000 every year as vehicle insurance fee even if the service is incurring huge losses.

“The annual tax amount is ₹1.2 lakh. Apart from these expenses, the owner will have to meet welfare fund contribution, daily wages of workers, fuel charges and maintenance cost, which will never be proportionate to the falling daily returns these days,” he says.

The biggest crisis, according to bus operators, is the decline in the number of commuters with the increasing number of taxi services and private vehicles. Now, students are seemingly the biggest group still depending on private buses as they have concession ticket benefits. Bus operators say the ailing industry will not last long if the government does not hike the bus fare and concession ticket charges, apart from reducing the hefty tax and insurance amounts and offer fuel subsidy.

Poor collection

“Normally, the average daily collection of private buses in Kozhikode district never goes beyond ₹10,000. Of this, the owner will have to set apart at least ₹3,000 for wages and ₹5,000 for diesel. The rest is the meagre profit if there are no other emergency maintenance works,” says K. Radhakrishnan, district president of the Kerala Bus Operators’ Organisation. He says that a bus owner who spends about ₹32 lakh for the vehicle, hardly gets a reasonable return to pay back the loan.

Experienced drivers leaving for greener pastures in the West Asia and the lack of experience of those who replace them too have created headaches for many bus operators. Despite the increasing challenges, the owners stick on as many of them do not have any other self-employment options.

They also claim that the existing operators are small players in need of better support as their big counterparts have already left the field for good.

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Printable version | Jun 24, 2022 11:10:04 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/kozhikode/private-bus-services-on-a-slippery-slope/article30553216.ece