COVID-19 pandemic has broken the backbone of private bus service sector in Kerala, which had weathered several storms in the past.
The nearly 13,000 private buses, engaging more than one lakh daily-wage workers, are the backbone of public transport in Kerala which constitutes 77 per cent of the entire passenger transport segment.
A sharp dip in the number of passengers due to the pandemic scare and spiralling fuel prices have pushed the industry, into an unprecedented crisis. As the joint action committee of the private bus operators announced suspension of services from Saturday, regular commuters depending on these buses will have to face hardships as the state-owned Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) may not be able to cater to the additional need.
In many rural areas and cities in central and northern parts of the state including Kochi, private buses are a major mode of public transport with no or very few KSRTC buses.
Suspension of private bus service will put burden on the commoners as they will have to shell out more for their daily trips.
“Private bus strike will put additional burden on the daily commuters who are already hit by the pandemic. A major chunk of the daily commuters depending on private buses is daily wage workers or low-income earners. I won’t be able to come to work if the bus strike continues indefinitely. I can’t spend on auto rickshaw every day to reach the city,” said Anitha Rajeev, a saleswoman in a garment showroom in Kochi.
Though bus operators have demanded exemption of the quarterly road tax during the pandemic period till December, the State transport minister A. K Saseendran has made it clear that tax exemption is not feasible, while the date of remittance can be extended till October. The government has also failed to address other demands of the operators like subsidy to fuel and exemption from remitting the contribution of bus owners and bus workers in Kerala State Motorworkers Welfare Board.
The Kerala government has recently increased the ticket fare temporarily for the pandemic period. But it has failed to help the operators due to heavy operational cost and dipping revenue.
“The operators were finding it extremely difficult to sustain the operations even before the pandemic, as ticket charges are their only source of revenue, but their expenditure ranges from diesel charges, maintenance of body parts, employee salary, etc. These aspects are not considered while fixing the minimum charge for tickets,” said M B Sathyan, state president, Private Bus Operators Association.
“COVID-19 has resulted in a consistent drop in bus patronage in the recent months, from 950 passengers per day during January 2020 to 650 in March and then 265 passengers post lockdown,” said K M Nawas, district secretary -Ernakulam, Kerala Bus transport Association.