For the first time in its history, the Tamil Nadu government decided to separate political ambitions from bus fares. Last week, not only did it increase fares after six years, it also announced that the fares will now be decided on an “indexing methodology”, a phrase that was buried deep in its own press release.
What it means is that fares will now depend on fuel and lubricant costs, as well as establishment costs. “We are borrowing heavily from how Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh fix their fares. The hikes will be minimal - from 50p to Re 1. It won’t happen every year. Whenever there is a necessity, we will review our expenditure and fix the fares accordingly,” said Additional Chief Secretary to the TN Government (Transport), PWC Davidar.
The fare was last hiked in November 2011. This was done after a gap of 15 years – the hike before that was in 2001. Prices of commodities like transport, milk and electricity were always dependent on the current political scenario of the state. Even so, Chief Minister E Palanisamy was quoted to have said that he has allowed it with a “heavy heart”.
However, experts and data show that he doesn’t need to have a heavy heart - just proper management.
“This is one of the best steps that MTC can take to revive itself and continue to serve the nearly 50 lakh passengers it serves on a daily basis,” said an expert working closely with the corporation. “Even if the government wishes to keep fares low, subsidies should reach the corporation as soon as possible. As this has not been happening, the corporation was cutting corners in maintenance, not paying pension to its former employees and acquiring new buses,” the expert added.
Even with its terrible financial status, the corporation has a lot going for it.
According to data from Union ministry of road transport and highways (MORTH), MTC enjoys a very high patronage. Every bus carries around 1,270 passengers every day- the highest in the country. “Metro TC (Chennai) Limited carried the highest number of passengers per bus per day during 2015-16 (1,270) followed by TNSTC (Kumbakonam) Ltd (1031), while Mizoram ST carried the lowest number of passengers per bus per day followed by Tripura RTC i.e. 11 passengers per bus per day,” read the report from MORTH titled ‘Review Of The Performance Of State Road Transport Undertakings For April, 2015 – March, 2016’. It was released in October 2017. This makes MTC buses the most crowded in the country.
While these numbers show a high demand, it means that the buses are overcrowded and the city does not have enough buses. Despite introducing new buses every year, the total fleet size of MTC has not increased significantly. Most of the new buses have only replaced the old ones. Although the MTC added 675 buses between 2013-14 and 2016-17, the total fleet size increased by only 214 buses. The actual number of buses on the road increased only by 157 - from 3,531 to 3,688. This is because 73% of buses in MTC are over-aged. This is the third highest in the country, only behind Bihar SRTC and TN’s very own State Express Transport Corporation (SETC). Experts say that Chennai needs at least 5,000 buses to cater to the needs of the existing passengers and at least 8,000 for a city with Chennai’s area and population.
When the staff protested recently, they knew they were hardworking and deserved their pension for their services. In a city as congested as Chennai, the drivers performed the best in the country (amongst metropolitan cities) with an average mileage of 4.4km per litre of high-speed diesel. The MORTH report also showed that MTC buses ran the highest number of kilometres in a day amongst metropolitan cities, each bus clocking an average of 252 kms a day.
“It is no doubt that the MTC and all other corporations are in dire straits. This is why they used the pension money, to the tune of Rs 7,000 crore, to run,” said vice-president of CITU-affiliated State Transport Employees Union. The union has around 35,000 staff attached to it. He accused the government of not giving subsidies on time and treating transport poorly. “Like education, health and even fire services, transport is an essential need for people. The last 10-12 years have been the worst. And it is no surprise that people will protest when you hike fares without showing any improvement in services,” he added.
Senior government officials say that there are working on four core areas in improving services: increasing the fleet size, inculcating technology including GPS-based services, setting protocols for maintenance and fleet management. “For the first time, we have the breathing space to even think about newer ideas and implement them. Even our route rationalisation was outdated and not digitised. This hindered our efficiency,” said Davidar.
He says his staff needs a vision and the belief that newer technologies can be implemented. “Whether it is introducing electric buses or implementing a conductor-less system in small buses, our staff needs to believe that these changes can be brought in. And for the first time, we believe we can,” he added.