The News Minute brings you The Last Stop, a series of stories on the state of public buses across south Indian cities.
Kochi is the largest and most populous metropolitan area in Kerala. In fact, the 17th largest in India. The city has one of the largest shopping malls in the country (in terms of total area). Kochi Metro Rail is the first metro in India to connect rail, road and water transport facilities. This two-tier city has done well for itself on major developmental fronts, barring one aspect: public transport services in certain suburban regions.
Kochi’s suburban regions constitute the coastal regions of West Kochi, the backwater surrounded Vypeen Islands as well as municipalities such as Trippunithura, Thrikkakara, Kalamassery and Aluva. According to the Private Bus Owners Association (Ernakulam unit), there are 630 private buses in Kochi. Most of these regions are well connected either by private or state-owned buses, barring some significant suburban areas like the InfoPark region in Kakkanad and Kundanoor. With only a few private buses and Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (RTC) buses having direct services in these regions, for commuters, it is often a matter of dedicating a significant amount of their time waiting for a bus to or from these places.
InfoPark is one of the largest IT hubs in the state, which houses about 42,000 employees. Kundanoor is one of the busiest junctions in Kochi, which is also an important transient point between regions of West Kochi (such as Thoppumpady, Edakochi, Fort Kochi and Palluruthy) and other suburban areas (such as Trippunithura and Thrikkakara).
InfoPark: ‘Miss one bus, it’s a nightmare’
There are only 10 private buses and two air-conditioned Volvo buses of Kerala RTC that directly connect InfoPark region to the city or to other suburban regions. What’s more, these buses ply only during peak hours in the morning and evening.
Out of the 12 buses in total, the two Kerala RTC buses run a single trip per day — at 7.25 am and 7.35 am — from Fort Kochi to InfoPark. According to Kerala RTC officials, after its single trip to InfoPark, the buses change route and ply other areas in the city.
Though the association of private bus owners claim that there are 10 private buses, employees of InfoPark disagree.
“We have not seen these 10 private buses. If we miss one bus, then it is almost a ‘life-long wait’ to get another bus,” Noyel, an InfoPark employee, tells TNM.
A major section of employees depends on company cabs, while others depend on public bus services. “However, if the person taking the cab misses a ride, then it is a nightmare,” says Noyel, who has been working in InfoPark for the last two years.
The employees who depend on these buses often lose their attendance at work as they fail to reach the office on time. “I have to get to the office by 8.30 am, and whenever I have had to depend on a bus, I reach hours after the punching time, which, in turn, takes a toll on my attendance. During my training period, when I had no access to cab facilities, this was often a problem. I either had to wait for hours to get a direct bus or take a connecting bus to the city, and from there, to Edachira or Civil station region, both of which are a few kilometres away from where the offices are located,” says Noyel, who lives in Thoppumpady, which is about 9 kms away from the city.
The Civil Station bus stop, an endpoint of buses from the city to Kakkanad, is about four kilometres from the InfoPark region. Meanwhile, from Edachira, an area near the InfoPark, one has to travel for about three kilometres to reach the InfoPark campus.
“After taking two buses from home to reach either Civil Station or Edachira, I have to take autorickshaws to the campus. And if it is an unlucky day for me, no autorickshaws will be available; I will have to wait further until I find one. But, again, it delays my time to reach the office,” says Noyel.
The employees of InfoPark, who majorly rely on public transport, have pinned their hope on the proposed extension of the Kochi Metro to the region. Kochi Metro, as part of its Phase-Two extension, has decided to extend the metro rail line from Kaloor to InfoPark, although it is uncertain when this will be implemented as the detailed project report (DPR) has only been submitted to the Centre for approval.
Kundanoor: ‘Direct buses can shorten travel’
Kundanoor is a major transit point that connects National Highways NH 966B (the shortest national highway in India — between Willingdon Island and Kundanoor), NH 66 and NH 85. Compared to InfoPark, Kundanoor is closer to the city centre, yet there are insufficient direct buses that connect commuters either from West Kochi region or from the city centre.
According to Kerala RTC officials, two years ago, there were more buses plying this route. At present, there are only two buses — the same buses that ply the Fort Kochi-InfoPark route, which makes one trip the entire day.
In addition to two state-owned buses, there are 10 private buses that connect West Kochi region and Kundanoor, although there are no direct buses connecting the city centre and Kundanoor.
“There were times when we had to wait for about an hour to get a bus. We cannot depend on autorickshaws, as they will charge a hefty amount,” Soumini, a resident of West Kochi region who works in a commercial establishment in Kundanoor, tells TNM.
Kundanoor also easily connects other suburbs such as Tripunithura and the industrial area of Ambalamugal to West Kochi region. In the absence of direct buses, passengers coming from Tripunithura can only reach regions in West Kochi after passing through the city centre. If there were direct buses, commuters could cut short the travel time by skipping the need to pass through the city centre, instead take the NH 966B from Kundanoor.
‘It is not profitable’: Bus operators
Though the bus operators agree that there are only very few buses in some suburban routes, they say it is not profitable to run more buses.
“In the case of InfoPark, there is only rush during the peak hours. Hence, it is not profitable for us,” KB Suneer, general secretary of the bus owners’ association, tells TNM.
But the association members also agreed that there is an increasing need to add more buses in the Kundanoor-West Kochi route. “We have decided to deviate a few buses plying in other routes with sufficient bus services to this route. I hope this will be implemented in a year or two,” he added.
“There were around 30,000 private buses in the whole state between 2008 and 2010. But now, the fleet consists of only 12,000 as many have left the field due to loss. The fuel charge is increasing by the day and the bus fare is also low,” says Suneer.
Another concern shared by the bus operators is the dwindling number of passengers in Kochi. According to them, after Kochi Metro started its service, passenger footfall for private buses has reduced by 25-30%. “Besides, many have private vehicles. Migrant labourers in Kochi are our main passengers. When they leave for their respective states during holidays, this change is evident, as buses will be mostly empty,” tells Suneer.
Plausible solution: Route rationalisation
Kochi city has witnessed massive growth in the past 20 years. The city’s suburbs, which were once fishing hamlets and barren lands, evolved into massive towns with the arrival of National Highways, IT parks and multi-crore residential apartments.
“Unlike the 90s, Kochi city has grown into its suburbs and paved the way to new routes. With this, some old routes were rendered inefficient, but unfortunately, buses still ply these old routes,” says D Dhanuraj, Chairman, Centre for Public Policy Research, a think-tank based in Kochi.
In order to create new routes or to shuffle the existing ones, he recommends route rationalisation — reorganisation of the existing bus routes based on a scientific study. “This should be executed by the Regional Transport Authority (RTA), although it has not been done for the last 20 years,” he adds.
According to Dhanuraj, the scientific study for route reorganisation should be based on the newly developed regions, its population strength, presence of commercial establishments and the corresponding need for public transport. “Kochi does not have such comprehensive data yet. Only after conducting such a kind of study can route rationalisation can be effectively done,” he says.
Also addressing the concern of dwindling private bus services due to loss for the operators, Dhanuraj also noted that a change in the private bus service system could also be another solution.
“At present, the revenue for the bus operators depends on the number of people who board the bus every day. But if these buses are integrated into a pool, like a cooperative society, where they all get an equal share of the total revenue, the problem of profit-making can be solved to a large extent. This has been experimented in various districts such as Kozhikode and Kottayam in Kerala and has been found successful,” he elucidates.