For quite some time complaints have been aired about the fleecing of passengers by contract carriage operators running inter-state bus services. But it took unil the incident on 21 April in Vyttila, Ernakulam, in which passsengers were attacked by bus employees, for popular protests and media interventions to bring it in focus. Kerala minister of transport has said that steps will be taken to end the malpractices in this sector, and that preliminary measures have already been initiated.
Kerala police has also launched special action under the name 'Operation Night Riders' to catch violations. 259 cases were registered in the first week of the operation which netted fines of Rs. 3.74 lakhs under various counts. Several booking offices functioning without licence have been shut down and others served notice. As a result of the strict action by police, the number of buses plying in inter-state routes has decreased to a third of what it was. It certainly goes to the credit of the government that so far it has taken care to be on the side of popular sentiments by taking such preliminary steps. That however will not suffice to solve the fundamental issues in this service segment.
The private contract carriages work on the strength of permits to carry passengers from one point to another, which does not allow them to stop at places of their choice to pick up and drop passengers. That permission is available only to the oerators with an LAPT (Licenced Agent for Public Transport). The rules related to this licencing are mostly old, outdated and only partially complied with.
In the first place, the rules and provisions covering the sector need to be revamped and updated. The Transport Department has prepared for the consideration of the government, new guidelines required for LAPT licence. Booking offices with an area of 150 square feet, CCTV, toilet and cloak room facilities, and waiting area for bus passengers are all laid down in the new draft. Booking offices meeting such specifications are almost non-existent. Most of the passengers are now destined to board, and alight from, the coaches almost in the middle of the road.
Coming to the fares, each carrier currently charges what suits his fancy. These fares vary acording to season, and even days. What the government has to do is to bring in tight controls in such matters and ensure their compliance. The current zeal for action which started in the light of the Vyttila assault, may die out within days, more so given the probable unholy ties of the bus lobby with the government and its police/bureaucratic machinery. There needs to be a popular vigil to see that it does not happen that way and the tempo of remedial action is sustained
Nearly 500 contract carriages are operating services daily from Kerala to different south Indian states. Nearly 200 of this are bound for Bengaluru. In other words, it is a commercial activity involving millions per day. And thousands of peole depend on them. Such a sector cannot be left to the mercy of private operators who use it as they wish. Therefore, it needs determined government intervention.
In the Bengaluru sector used by thousands of passengers, currently only four trains are plying. The Kochuveli-Mysuru train service that was declared in the 2014 budget, has not yet started running. One urgent action to take is to increase the number of trains plying in this sector. The government of Kerala and the state's MPs should exert the required pressure on the Centre to make it happen. The truth now is that those responsible have been giving scant attention to this long-pending demand.
It was only recently that the Railways took a decision to change the stop of the Kannur-Yeshwantpur Express to remote Banaswadi. The Railways was forced to retract this step thanks to the decision of Malayalis in Bengaluru to go on strike against this. But it is so unfortunate that either the government in Kerala or the state's MPs had not made any interention on this subject. Even now, two weekly express trains are operating from Banasvadi.
In fact, behind such decisions that put rail passengers in trouble, is the unholy nexus between the private bus lobby and railway officials. Another alternative is for KSRTC to increase the services in this sector. Nilambur-Nanjangudu rail route is a project that can bring in big changes in inter-state travel. In order to achieve that, earnest and effective efforts are called for from the government. Even if any sympathy cannot be shown to those who travel to other states in search of job and higher studies, governments should at least have the generosity not to penalise them.