It’s Dasara in Hyderabad and the bus depot at Sanath Nagar wears a deserted look as a lone Telangana State Road Transport Corporation (TSRTC) bus manned by private operators on hire waits at the bus bay with a few passengers on board. The passengers have been waiting for close to 15 minutes and are beginning to get irritated with the delay. Mohammad Aseem, the bus conductor on hire, glances across the bus depot with a tense look on his face. It’s the seventh of the eight trips for the day and he is unsure if they would meet the Rs 10,000 a day target set by TSRTC.
"The RTC officials told us that we won't get paid unless we earn Rs 10,000 from the eight trips we make in a day, they are not strict about it though as it’s the festival," says the 33-year-old who earns Rs 1,000 for the day. The driver of the bus earns Rs 1,500 for the day's service. Under this model of operating TSRTC buses, the private operators to whom the bus is rented out are to pay the TSRTC a fixed amount, whatever they earn above that set limit (Rs 10,000) can be kept by those hired.
As the state government looks at partly privatising TSRTC, it will be adopting a similar model to meet 30% of the state's demand for public transport. Currently, there are 10,400 buses running in the state. As per CM KCR’s plan, half of these buses – 5,200 – will be operated exclusively by TSRTC. 30% of the fleet – 3,100 buses -- will be taken on hire and will run under TSRTC’s supervision. Another 20% of the service demand will be met by private operators on contract. At present, 21% of the TSRTC’s fleet is hired.
If KCR has his way, close to 50,000 of the protesting TSRTC staff who did not report to duty as of October 4, will be considered terminated, giving room for new hires, but by the new private operators. Those under the contract will own and operate the bus, they would also bear the profit and loss. Only the timings to operate will be provided by the TSRTC and the private operators also have to keep the ticket fare the same as the TSRTC’s.
However, not all those within the TSRTC are in favour of the new plans for the ailing corporation. A senior official within the state RTC who did not wish to be named, said the committee report detailing the privatisation of the RTC was created on the government’s request. "We know for a fact that privatisation of the RTC is not going to save it, but we have to listen to the government and do what they say," was all the official had to say on the matter.
A former senior official with the TSRTC on the condition of anonymity says the path to privatisation of the TSRTC would create new challenges. "Some powers have to be given to the TSRTC to regulate the private operators. At present, if a passenger has a complaint, they can reach out to the depot manager. When private operators come in, who will be accountable for what has to be detailed. This idea of privatisation may work initially, but we have to see how sustainable it is in the long run," opined the former official.
Those working on public transport and policy are of the view that the present model of including private players would degrade the existing quality of public transport service. They simply point towards poor transportation quality in cities across the country, where private operators already run public transport.
"Don't think the private sector can run the show. If they had the capacity, Indore, Bhopal, Kochi, Kolkata and all the other cities that started buses under the JNNURM (Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission) would have had a world-class service. None of them has that," says Sai Krishna Chaitanya, a transport researcher. "For buses run by private operators, the risk of earning revenue is on the operator. This often leads to street competition and bad quality of service," he added.
What is "new and alarming" according to this researcher is the decision to allow private players to operate 20% of TSRTC buses on their own. "The concern always has been private guys will run buses only on profitable routes. So TSRTC will be left with not so profitable rural routes. Even now, a lot of inter-city buses make "profit" but it all gets offset by loss-making rural buses," adds Chaithanya, who opines that the ideal way forward for the TSRTC would have been to increase the bus fleet.
"TSRTC's fleet cannot be 10,000 odd buses forever. It has to grow, at least to 15,000 buses. Hyderabad alone needs 3,000 more buses and about 600 buses each in Warangal and Nizamabad alone. Warangal will be a million-plus city in population by next census. It has only 3 or 4 city bus routes, it is pathetic," said the researcher.