The row over Robin, Kerala’s outlaw bus, explained

While fans of Robin Bus, which runs on an All India Tourist Permit, consider it akin to Robinhood, an outlaw taking on powerful rulers, the state’s motor vehicle law enforcers are not enthused by their defiance.
The row over Robin, Kerala’s outlaw bus, explained
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Can a tourist bus, which is a Contract Carriage vehicle, operate an intra-state service with destination board, picking and dropping passengers as it pleases if it has an All India Tourist Permit (AITP)? Well, the operators of Robin Bus in Kerala who began a bus service between Pathanamthitta in Kerala to Coimbatore in neighbouring Tamil Nadu think it gives them the right to do so.

Fans of Robin Bus consider it akin to Robinhood, an outlaw taking on powerful rulers, and are organising receptions with flower garlands, but neither the motor vehicle law enforcers in the state nor entities like the state road transport corporation are enthused by their defiance.

But such a confrontation was likely to have happened sooner or later. Similar concerns were raised by stakeholders in several states after the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) notified the All India Tourist Vehicles (Permit) Rules, 2023 in April this year. The rules came into force on May 1, 2023.

The All India Tourist Permit (AITP)

The AITP allows a tourist vehicle operator to ply tourist vehicles throughout the territory of India on strength of permit fee, which would be then divided to the states through which it plies. This was done to make travel seamless across states, to streamline and strengthen the tourist permit regime as tax rates differed from state to state.

Another intention was to simplify the procedure for AITP applicants and reduce compliance burden. The new rules were supposed to provide financial relief to smaller tourist operators with lower seating capacity who need to pay less fees commensurate with the seating capacity. Promoting deployment of electric vehicles in large numbers was also an aim.

As per the Parivahan website. a total of 37 AITP permits were issued in Kerala in 2021. In 2022, a total of 88 permits were issued. As of 2023, the number of such permits stands at 137. Across India, 1,09,759 permits have been issued.

The rule change allows vehicles to transport passengers individually or in a group, along with their personal luggage provided they have a valid contract in electronic form or otherwise.

Vehicles with AITP should exhibit the words ‘All India Tourist Authorisation’ or ‘All India Tourist Permit’ as the case may be, along with ITS validity on the rear and left side of the vehicle, in white letters in a blue circle. They also should carry a list of passengers in electronic or paper form. All passengers travelling should also be insured.

But while framing the rules, the Union Ministry exempted AITP holders from the conditions prescribed in rules 82 to 85A of the Central Motor Vehicles Rules, 1989. One of the clauses under Rule 85A, on additional conditions of tourist permit, states that the permit holder shall not operate the tourist vehicle as a Stage Carriage.

This differentiation is crucial and the point of contention between the operators of Robin Bus, the Motor Vehicles Department in Kerala, and the Kerala State Transport Corporation, which fears loss of revenue if more bus operators feel emboldened to run similar services.

Contact Carrier and Stage Carrier 

While a Contract Carriage is defined as a vehicle which carries passengers for hire under a contract and a previously agreed rate, Stage Carriages are defined as vehicles which carry passengers at separate fares paid by individual passengers, either for the whole journey or in stages.

The operator of a stage carriage cannot decide the price of a journey, an amount fixed by the state government. They should give the concession to students. The private buses and Kerala State Road Transport Commission (KSRTC) buses are examples of Stage Carriage operators.

Contact carriers operate service from one point to another without stopping to pick up or drop off passengers not included in the contract anywhere during the journey. Simply, these are the tourist buses people use to go for general tours, office or school tours, marriage functions, or tours for pilgrims.

As per the Motor Vehicle Act, such carriages cannot pick up and drop off people at will. If a contract carrier operates with pick up and drop off, it would be a violation of the rule.

Legal or illegal?

The contention of MVD, which penalised Robin Bus whose Coimbatore trips turned into a media spectacle, is that it is Contract Carriage. Robin’s operators latch on to the legal loop hole, which now does not restrict them from plying like a Stage Carriage.

According to the Contact Carriers Operators Association (CCOA), all inter-state buses are operating with AITP. People use these buses to travel to places like Bengaluru and Chennai by booking tickets through apps and websites or ticket counters. The rates are differential.

“Who are the tourists? According to our knowledge, people who travel away from their homes are tourists. Kerala Motor Vehicle Act says the people who go on tour are the tourists. However, according to the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation people who come for medical purposes are tourists, and it is called medical tourism. According to us, the people who travel away from their homes are tourists and we do not need to inquire why they are travelling”, said Rijas, state secretary of CCOA.

The CCOA also alleged that the Kerala MVD continuously penalised several inter-state buses for the last two weeks. The penalty ranged from Rs 7500 to Rs 15000.

“If the owner of Robin Bus utilises a loophole in the existing rule, the government should take action and clarify this through an order. What if other tourist bus owners do the same... it will affect the public transportation system. So the government should act, not by penalising but by bringing clarity regarding the rule," said advocate Shaheen Pilakkal.

The KSRTC has now filed a writ petition before the Kerala High Court challenging the All India Tourist Vehicles (Permit) Rules, 2023 which allows vehicles with AITP to operate as stage carriages. The KSRTC's contention is that Contract Carriages cannot operate such services without adhering to the rates, schedules or timings fixed by the state government.

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