The News Minute brings you The Last Stop, a series of stories on the state of public buses across south Indian cities.
“There were so many popular bus routes in Vijayawada back in our day which are nearly obsolete now. There was even a film song referring to route number 1 which went from Gollapudi to Poranki,” says YV Rao, chuckling as he mentions the NTR-Sridevi song ‘Adhi okato number bus’ from the 1982 film Bobbili Puli.
Rao, who is the President of the APSRTC (Andhra Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation) Employees’ Union, recalls that earlier, city buses would plough along shorter routes several times a day, whereas today, most bus routes in Vijayawada have become longer, thus bringing down the frequency with which the buses are available.
The shortage of public transport buses in Vijayawada is conspicuous, with seven-seater autorickshaws, or ‘share-autos’, practically replacing buses as the preferred choice of transport across many standard routes. These share autos are abundantly available across the city at affordable prices. Seven-seater autos even plough between Vijayawada and Mangalagiri, and the 15 kilometre journey typically costs Rs 20. Docked bike rental services like Bounce have also been launched in the city recently, which are rising as yet another alternative to public transport.
Shortage of buses
The autos have overtaken the few buses in the city, whose fleet has remained stagnant at around 430 for many years now, as Hyderabad-based transport researcher GSR Chaitanya points out.
According to YV Rao, before the 1990s, Vijayawada had about 120 city buses. “Expansion happened slowly through the ‘90s, and today there are four depots and about 450 city buses,” he says.
Challa Chandraiah, Working President of YSR RTC Union, says that Volvo buses which were distributed to Vijayawada, Vizag and Tirupati are now being used for night services. “Even JNNURM (Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission) buses which were brought in are being used as intercity buses ploughing between Autonagar and Ongole, Guntur, Bhimavaram and Eluru,” he says.
Even though air-conditioned buses were sanctioned through JNNURM funds for use within the city, they are being used for intercity travel. According to Chandraiah, it was believed that these buses may not suit the needs of the people of Vijayawada. “There aren’t many IT companies or multi-national companies here. It was felt that not many citizens were likely to take to AC buses at higher fares, unlike other cities which are more metropolitan,” he says.
However, both Rao and Chandraiah agree that Vijayawada does need to add at least 300 more buses to its fleet to be able to cater to its people. “A new depot has been sanctioned at Vidyadharapuram, but it’s not clear when and whether it will be constructed,” Rao says.
He says that earlier, the city buses covered shorter routes which had more number trips, making buses easily available along these routes. “We had buses from the Kaleswara Rao market to Autonagar, Nidamanuru, Ramavarappadu etc., which could cover about eight trips in a day. Today, we have more buses along longer routes. They go all the way to Agiripalli, Nuzvid and other places,” Rao notes. With fewer trips and lower frequency, buses along these routes have lost passengers who favour the affordable, more frequently available alternative of seven-seater autos.
Those familiar with the routes call for an overhaul in bus routes and timings. “New routes must be studied and surveyed. Changing needs of employees and students must be considered, along with the rising population. Places like Nandigam, Kanchikacherla, Poranki and Penamaluru, where the city is expanding, should also be covered better,” Chandraiah says.
With the Vijayawada Municipal Corporation (VMC) looking to expand into the Greater Vijayawada Municipal Corporation, the villages which will be included under the corporation will also need to be served by city buses.
Chandraiah says that the public transport system has been unable to catch up with the rise in urbanisation and inflow of population in recent times, particularly after the state capital was set up in the Vijayawada-Amaravati-Guntur region. With the rise in autorickshaws, seven seaters, two-wheelers and four-wheelers, pollution and congestion on the roads have both been rising.
The major roads in the city, including the Bunder Road and Eluru Road, see constant congestion. Rao says that road expansion and traffic management has not evolved to accommodate the increasing number of vehicles on the roads. “Earlier, the traffic advisory committee would involve the RTA (Regional Transport Authority), RTC, police, VMC and even the workers unions. Such bodies seem to have become inactive now,” he says. The rise in pollution should also be addressed and checked immediately, especially in light of the worsening conditions of urbanisation in metros like Delhi and Mumbai, he says.
Vijayawada’s public transport system is evidently in dire need of infrastructure expansion. APSRTC itself was suffering heavy losses, and was recently merged with the state government. The merger has resulted in the creation of a new ‘Public Transport Department’ under the administrative control of the Transport, Roads and Buildings Department.
The government recently announced a fare hike for RTC buses, apart from the addition of 240 buses by March 2020. However, Chandraiah says that the fare hike is nominal and unlikely to make a big difference to the revenue. The 240 buses will be added to the entire state’s fleet, and while Vijayawada is likely to get a few, they are bound to fall short in meeting the city’s needs.
With the merger, the state government has supported the corporation at a crucial stage. But Rao says that the institution needs consistent, active support from the government. “After APSRTC becomes the Public Transport Department, we are not sure how things will turn out. The government needs to show special interest and engagement for the merger to be successful. While huge budget allocations are made, we mostly receive them in the form of reimbursements. We need proper fund allocations for infrastructure expansion,” Rao says. He is hopeful that with state support, losses can be avoided and the APSRTC can go back to being a relevant and cherished public institution in the city.
Chaitanya also feels that for city bus services to sustain themselves, support from the government is critical. “The cost of operating city buses is high, while earnings are less. There is no way for the city bus services to bring down the costs any more. At the end of the day, the government must support APSRTC. It cannot make money using fares alone,” he says
Speaking about plans for expanding public transport infrastructure in the city, S Venkateswara Rao, Deputy Transport Commissioner for Krishna district said, “From our side (Transport Department) of course we suggest that public transport must be expanded, whether it is buses or metro or BRTS, in the interest of avoiding pollution, accidents, traffic etc. But it is up to the government to make these decisions.”