Public carrier, private woes

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For SRTC it has been a journey from riches to rags. The state’s prime mover of men and material has been accumulating losses for years now, becoming an unwanted baggage for the government that owns it. Haroon Mirani reports.

All along the years the fate of SRTC has mirrored the situation of Jammu and Kashmir.

All along the years the fate of SRTC has mirrored the situation of Jammu and Kashmir.

Rough estimates put the value of assets of State Road Transports Corporation (SRTC) at more that 850 crore rupees. This is despite the fact that the cream of its properties has already been taken away by government and transferred to private as well different government bodies.

If the properties like Neelam Cinema, Broadway Hotel, Sangarmal Shopping Complex, JK Bank corporate headquarter and other such prime location assets are to be taken into account, then the now defunct corporation will arguably be one of the richest organizations in the state.

But on ground the corporation has been almost closed down, employees are literally begging, government looks indifferent and SRTC with its fleet of buses and trucks – once prime mover of men and material in the state – has become an unwanted baggage for the government.

All along the years the fate of SRTC has mirrored the situation of Jammu and Kashmir. The latter too has not been able to achieve anything except record liabilities and soaring debts despite being rich in resources and the former has simply followed its footsteps.

“It is an irony that SRTC is in losses today despite owning assets worth billions of rupees,” said Shakil Ahmad Kuchay chairman SRTC workers association.

Originally known as Government Transport (GT), SRTC was established by former Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah in 1948 from Auqaf money. The indigenous institute was then converted into an undertaking in 1950.

In the same year New Delhi passed Road Transport Corporation Act 1950, in which states were asked to make transport corporations for providing cheap and safe transport facilities to people. The act was not implemented in Jammu and Kashmir then.

People associated with the corporation say that SRTC was consumed like so many other institutions in the political fire. “In 1975 when the accord between Sheikh Abdullah and Indira Gandhi was signed, one of its first victims was the SRTC,” recalls Kuchey. “Abdullah was asked by New Delhi to extend all central laws in the state and he found it easy to start with GT which was converted into SRTC.”

The conversion of GT into State Road Transport Corporation in 1976 is regarded as the turning point in its history just like Kashmir’s history of 1975.

Up to 1988, the corporation used to earn profits, but the start of militancy in 1989 changed all that. “The period became a double blow to us. First we started to suffer losses and secondly government curtailed the annual financial support to us,” said Kuchay.

Abe’l convoy (popular name of SRTC as its vehicles were used by Sheikh Abdullah during his congregations) soon became a white elephant. Even as government promoted private transport, SRTC started to become a forgotten past.

Illegal appointments

Presently the government claims that the corporation has too much of staff, but they are silent on how the staff increased in SRTC even as it continued running in losses.

From 1996 when Farooq Abdullah came to power, successive ministers made recruitments in SRTC. “Everybody from Hussam-u Din Banday to Bashir Ahmad Kitchloo to Bashir Ahmad Nengroo to Ajay Sadhotra managed to get their blue eyed boys employment in the loss making unit,” accuses Kuchey. The recruitments according to Kuchey run in hundreds and all of them were selected by government and not by SRTC management. With the result the expenditure bill of SRTC bloated.

Private or public servant

Over the years the budgetary support to SRTC has witnessed a decline. The government has been pressurising SRTC for generating more income and self-reliance even as its rules and laws suggest public service as priority.
“On one hand the government wants us to make profits but on the other it orders us to ply the buses on low economy roads like far flung areas, hilly roads and provide cheap inter-district transport as a service to public,” said Ghulam Mohiudin, another employee. “Then we are government sector, but when we ask for money for sustaining such operations they ask us to generate money on our own, which is simply not possible.”

SRTC also provides transport facilities to schools on subsidised rates. Lesser number of working days due to strikes and loss of sight seeing revenue during the last two decades of conflict added to its losses.

Jaleel Khan, former financial commissioner put one of the nails in the coffin of SRTC by proposing that “there should be 10 per cent decrease in budgetary support.”

“From Rs 34 crore to Rs 28 crore per year to Mufti regime’s Rs 17 crore to present proposed Rs 13 crore per year by Omar Abdullah, the budgetary support continues to dwindle,” said Kuchey.

A government rule under SRO 157 and SRO 314 clearly says that no government department can hire private vehicle for its official purposes and has to approach SRTC for getting the vehicle. “Nobody follows the rule in the state and government itself doesn’t care, so they hire private vehicles and we suffer losses.”

Despite all odds SRTC has managed its name in record books during its hey days. SRTC is known for its lowest accident rate which stands at 0.02 per cent much lower than all India average of around 3 per cent. “We have even got the award for best service which was received by our MD at Mumbai” said Kuchey. It has the best safety record among all the hill states.

SRTC has the distinction to be the first to operate the bus service across the world’s highest road “Khardung la Pass” (18380 ft. high) 40 years ago. It was also first to operate cargo-cum-passenger bus (Unimog) service in Ladakh.

It is also first in India to own and operate the largest fleet of load carriers in public sector for Public Distribution System.

Infrastructure

At its height SRTC had 1600 vehicles. “Now only 850 vehicles have remained” said Kuchey. Of these only 550 vehicles are in running condition and 300 vehicles are in workshops and are literally dead. “Seventy percent of our vehicles are over-aged and these will soon be out of business” said Kuchey.

During the last 20 years, 300 vehicles of SRTC were damaged in conflict related incidents. “In these incidents couple of our colleagues lost their lives and many were injured” said Mohiudin. “No monetary compensation or government job was given to their families.”

There has been no worthwhile investment in infrastructure upgradation in the last two decades. “Only Rs 5 crore were given to us during the last 20 years for purchasing new buses,” said Kuchey.

Jammu and Kashmir is the only state which does not have a proper transport policy, which adds to the chaotic situation. The budgetary support to SRTC in the state is one of the lowest in India.

“In Himachal Pradesh the government provides Rs 80 crore to its SRTC every year and further Rs 35- 40 crore per year for purchasing new vehicles,” said Kuchey. “Compare it with our Rs 13 crore and you can see the discrimination. It seems everybody is hell bent on destroying the institution.”

Debts

The institutions of government of India too have become controversial in their conduct with SRTC. The corporation accuses Food Corporation of India (FCI) of withholding around Rs 12.5 crore. “They owe us the money on part of carrier charges, and as they are refusing to pay up, a court battle seems imminent,” said Mohiudin.

The troopers and even police have also occupied number of their buildings for the last two decades and SRTC is not receiving any rent. “The entire police station at TRC is an illegal construction and encroachment on our land,” says Mohiudin. “Similarly another building in TRC is occupied by troopers and our Lala Rukh hotel is also under occupation by CRPF and we don’t receive any rent.”

“Even Indian army has occupied 250 kanals of SRTC land in Panthachowk and as usual rent is elusive,” says Mohiudin.

The SRTC employees allege that the government was fleecing the corporation. “Recently when they (government) forcibly took 150 kanals of land for Sangarmal complex from us, they gave us land in exchange at far flung Bemina which doesn’t come anywhere near to its value or strategic location,” said Kuchey.

According to authorities the SRTC was facing huge losses, which had gone up to Rs 37.45 crore only in the form of cash.

Strike

Currently all the 3742 employees of SRTC are on strike which started on August 26, 2009. They have not been paid for six months. They are demanding that the government take action for their future for once and all. On October 01, 2009 all the employees of SRTC submitted their application for voluntary retirement. Besides their protest includes demonstrations, voluntary arrest, sit-in protests and so on.

“We are doing everything to make government hear us, but there is a criminal silence on its part as if we don’t exist,” said Kuchey.  “The situation of our employees is pathetic, some are begging, our children had to drop out of schools and some don’t have money to even treat their ailing relatives,” said Mohiudin.

After the employees submitted their mass voluntary retirement requests, Anoop Kannaw MD SRTC admitted that the government was not able to meet their entire compensation at once. “We have projected this before Finance Commission as well,” he said adding that the employees were demanding the compensation in one go, which means Rs. 340 crore and “paying that is not possible.”

He said that the government was trying its level best to solve the crisis.

Utilising assets

In number of meeting in the run up to present situation the government had come up with many proposals to utilise the assets of SRTC for the corporation’s benefit, but the proposals never saw the light of the day. “SRTC has billions of rupees worth assets at prime locations in Pampore, Panthachowk, Rail head Jammu, MA road and others,” says Mohiudin. “And the corporation should utilise these for rejuvenating the public carrier.”

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A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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