A court ordered phase-out of busses and loss making operations are pushing busses out of the valley with the bus fleet shrinking to less than half of its strength. Abdul Mohamin reports.
If you are inside Panthachowk bus stand and feeling hungry, just enter bus number JKB 6201. It would not, and could not, take you to a restaurant. It is the restaurant. With good cooks and spacious seats you will enjoy the food.
The “restaurant” was a passenger bus which ran on the valley’s roads until a court order threw it off the roads. The court decision had asked the government to remove buses serving for more than 25 years.
The staff in the restaurant has not been in the hospitality business for long. They are bus drivers and conductors who have been rendered jobless by the ban. They still do a fine job.
Muhammad Rafiq a former Kashmir Motor Driver Association (KMDA) member and bus driver has been assigned the job to peel vegetables for lunch. The onions, he is peeling, are giving him tears.
“Losing the job was more painful,” he says. He works as a waiter for a Rs 1500 a month.
The ban on plying of vehicles older than 25 years led many vehicles to scrap yards reducing the KMDA fleet, which services south Kashmir, to 330. Another 33 buses will go off the roads this year. The KMDA fleet once comprised of more than a 1000 busses.
Like KMDA, the fleet of Western Bus Service (WBS), which services north Kashmir, is also on decline. The WBS fleet is three times larger than KMDA.
General Secretary KMDA, GM Bhat, is highly critical of the government for adopting a policy, which promised to decongest the city and provide cleaner air.
“Our vehicles were old, but they had the capacity to transport people in bulk, but presently the vehicles have been increased manifold on the roads burning more fuel than what our fleet could have gulped,” said Bhat adding it has led to increased pollution.
The transporters feel that the transport policy is flawed to the core and it is both the operators and people who are being hit.
Busses are a cheap source of transport and serviced almost all the village and towns in the state. As the busses operators suffered losses, transporters preferred smaller vehicles.
“There are hardly any new busses in Kashmir as running a bus is not that profitable,” says sriver Bashir Ahmed.
KMDA has only added one bus since the phasing out of older busses began in 2005 and similar pattern is evident in WBS.
The WBS Association president, Abdul Majid Gazi, says that a new bus will cost RS 130000 but the highly competitive market and a definite phase out in 25 years makes an owner suffer loss of Rs 55000 every year. Buying a bus is not possible without bank finance, which attracts huge interest rates, he adds.
Gazi say that the big buses like the one seen today will cease to exist by 2014-15 a time most of their fleet crosses the phase-out age.
“This is destined to end, there will be no bus on the roads in the coming years,” says Gazi. The transporters say that since last year the insurance costs them an additional 10,000 and inflation is pushing the cost of spares and fuel.
And the operators are fighting to keep old buses on the road, following a government notification regarding their phase-out, making spares and overhauling costly. The transporters have to battle inflation, taxes and the prevailing situation in the region.
However, there has been a manifold increase in the number of mini-busses and cabs in Kashmir in the last decade.
A veteran transporter whishing not to be named said that an environment-friendly transport system was “never a priority for the government and the nexus was deep rooted with more permits and violation of traffic laws only filling the coffers of the bureaucrats”.
Any public transport has to ply according to the stage carriage permit setup, but here the cabs are governed by the contract carriages permit, a set up where a group intending to go to some place has to enter into an agreement with the operator first, but they are running as stage carriers and government is salient to this, he said.
The bus operators say that they were never given an opportunity to switchover to cleaner fuel and it is no secret that many run their busses on kerosene.
Shariefudin of Rehbab Sahib Srinagar who has witnessed the downfall closely since joining the trade as a conductor in 1970 said that he first got recruited as a conductor for which he had to pass a test, with a conductor license which he still holds.
Sharief said that the sector was emerging as a disciplined force, but later the authorities made a lax system and it was ruined.
The drivers said that they used to ply in the Srinagar city, but later minibuses were introduced on link roads, while buses would ply on trunk roads. The purpose was to ensure the reach of public on to the trunk roads with ease, where they would then use the buses.
However the minibuses later intruded onto the main roads, with permanent stands being given to them, thus eliminating the purpose they were introduced for.
Now thousand of Sumo vehicles are there to compete for their market and the government has allowed their services on various roads a clear violation of the existing laws, they said.
Many are now fighting court cases regarding enhancement of phase out age of buses, besides rehabilitation of those who have suffered.
Transport Commissioner, Dr Syed Mohammad Fazalullah, said that the operators are fighting for enhancement of age of vehicles in the court of law, and the current policy for plying within the city is mostly focused on smaller sized vehicles and it is again the court that has been pushing for decongesting of city.