Prem Kumar sits with around 10 of his colleagues at the Kamareddy bus depot, which wears an empty look. Unlike his usual day where he is busy at work, Prem, who is a mechanic, is now participating in the ongoing strike by employees of the Telangana State Road Transport Corporation (TSRTC).
"The government wants to create a mess, push the corporation into even more losses and put the blame on us. Public safety has become a thing that they are least bothered about," he tells TNM.
There are many like Prem. A Raju, G K Murthy and T Narsimhulu; three others sitting with him, say that each of them have been working as mechanics for more than 10 years like many of their colleagues. The labourers say that the government's steps at privatising operations are threatening them as their families are dependent on their jobs.
The Kamareddy depot garage caters to at least 110 bus services on a daily basis with over 30 permanent staff and another 30 on contract basis.
While drivers and conductors have been clearly visible in the ongoing protests by the TSRTC, the mechanics who work at depots across the state, are less visible, when one thinks of the RTC and its problems. They claim that their problems too, are 'invisible' like them.
"The RTC was deliberately made inefficient and became a loss-making entity. There are no proper toolkits or infrastructure for us to repair the vehicles. Not a single day would have gone by for the RTC, if we had not been working here and making sure that the buses are maintained. Yet, we are underpaid. How can they claim losses when they're not even paying us for the hours we work?" A Raju asks.
GK Murthy, who is working as a mechanic, has an ITI Diploma and has been an employee for over 11 years. He tells TNM, "The government is the reason behind the so called poor performance. Instead of blaming us, the government should release the dues they owe to RTC. They don't pay what is due to our Corporation but take crores from RTC in the name of taxes."
The Telangana government accommodates free and concessionary bus passes for school and college students, besides journalists, police staff on certain duties, senior citizens and persons with disabilities in RTC buses and then reimburses them to RTC.
Raju and Prem Kumar
The mechanics opine that if the government clears the reimbursement dues, the crisis will be sorted and more than half the losses can be cleared.
According to TSRTC Joint Action Committee, the state government has given Rs 710 crore only against the claim of Rs 2700 crore for the last five years (2014-2019).
The mechanics express fear that the temporary staff, which is being recruited in the wake of the strike, are under-experienced and lack training.
T Narsimhulu, a mechanic who claims that he is unable to cope with the increased prices and expenses in the market with meagre wages, says, "When you're (RTC) able to pay more than Rs 1,000 per day to an inexperienced person, why can't you pay a little more amount to RTC's own staff?"
He further adds, "RTC was never a loss-making company, policies of the successive governments have pulled it back. My basic pay is around Rs 30,000 while I get not more than Rs 14,000 in hand. They should tell us how we can make our families survive."
Prem Kumar calls the move for privatisation as nothing but an additional burden on the public transport system. It will not just affect us but also the people as well, he says, adding, "Under the Nizam, the RTC started as a public service entity to strengthen the transport sector. Our primary demand is that the government should immediately start the merger procedure, beside calling us for talks.”
Women staff to continue strike
Kusuma, a senior conductor from the first batch of RTC women staff says, "It sounds like a sham to call us loss-making. Why don't they reduce taxes and give waivers. When the state government can do such promotions for private entities which don’t provide service to the people of the state, why not us?"
She adds, "Its' been more than 10 years since any recruitment happened. Buy more buses and recruit more people. We can run the buses on different schemes without giving space to private agencies."
Kusuma says that they didn’t celebrate Dussehra for the first time in her service. ”After knowing that we are having plans for a strike, they stopped paying last month’s salary as well and none of our families celebrated Dussehra.”
Shiva Rajavva, with over 10 years of experience says, "Is there any job which involves this much labour and yet pays such a meagre amount? I get Rs 20,000 in hand while over 10,000 gets deducted in the name of taxes, PF and loans."
Women staff who report for duty, often in the wee hours, have to travel for 40 to 80 km after their work is over. "When we complain about lack of shuttle facilities before and after duty, they say we are giving you Rs 3,000 HRA, why can't you stay here in the town. They should tell us in which town we can get a house for Rs 3,000 for a family of four,” says Kalpana with over 14 years of experience.
The women staff are in agreement with their male counterparts that they will not go back on the protests and strike until their demands are met.
Ch Vinoda, a conductor says, "Isn't he (KCR) the same politician who called for strikes and expressed solidarity when we had gone on a 27-day strike? Why this hypocrisy? We are not afraid. Strikes are not new, we will continue our strike."
With the strike entering its sixth day, around 50,000 employees whom the KCR government declared as “self-dismissed”, are off the rolls. Out of 10,400 buses, the state government is plying a few thousand buses with the help of temporary staff. Private operators are also running buses.
Meanwhile, the Telangana High Court expressing dissatisfaction on the alternative arrangements of the government, sought a comprehensive report from the department concerned while hearing a public interest litigation (PIL). The High Court postponed the hearing to October 15 and asked RTC management and RTC employee unions to file a counter by the same date.
TSRTC incharge Managing Director Sunil Sharma conveyed to the court in his report that 8,150 vehicles were being operated. These include 3,013 RTC buses, 1,804 hired buses and 2,637 maxi cabs.