KOCHI: The city may be inching back to normal but it will take more time for private buses to start plying. While over 800 buses conducted services daily till February, the number of operational ones fell to 400 in May. At present, only 150 buses ply in the entire district.
Before Covid-19 struck, speeding private buses reigned on Kochi’s roads. Thousands of people depended on them, making the huge network of private buses the backbone of public transport in the city. However, the equation has since changed. If the 800 buses which were conducting services daily in February before the outbreak was reported, the number dropped to below 400 by May and it kept dwindling in the following days. Since August 1, when private bus owners decided to keep off the road, unable to cover the mounting losses, only a dismal 150 buses ply all over the district. Result: Despite many people keeping indoors due to the Covid scare, the city’s roads are bustling with private vehicles, especially two-wheelers and cars.
The decline in the number of private buses operating services has been on for some time. While the total number of buses in the state was around 30,000 in early 2000, it dropped to 12,600 by 2020. After the Covid outbreak, the number came down to 1,500 all over the state.Though the festive season is here, with barely 13 days left for Onam, very few private buses will dot the city’s roads anytime soon. Even if things get back to normal, the private bus sector will take a very long time to come out of the damage it has suffered in the last few months.
According to Kerala Private Bus Operators Association president M B Sathyan, the loss is too big that private buses can’t even think of conducting services anytime soon. “Why would anybody run a business that makes one poorer by Rs 2,500 everyday? The association has not instructed anyone to stop services. It is just that the owners can’t bear the loss. The only silver lining at the moment is the government’s decision to waive the tax for the months of July, August and September. Had they taken the decision at least in April, more buses would have conducted services,” he adds.
Private Bus Owners Association general secretary K B Suneer agrees that the waiver would prompt at least a few of them to conduct services. “That doesn’t mean the number of buses will be back to the same anytime soon,” he says. According to Sathyan, in the current financial situation, nobody would want to spend Rs 35 lakh to buy a bus, when one can’t make Rs 1,000 as profit a day.
Time for CNG and e-buses
The Centre for Public Policy Research chairman D Dhanuraj agrees that the private bus sector is facing a huge crisis. “It is beyond debate that the private bus sector is in tatters. Besides the Covid situation, increasing fuel prices are a burden. We need to switch to alternative means like CNG and e-buses. For a very mobile population like that of Kochi, unless the public transportation facilities get better, there is no way forward,” he adds.
According to owners, the only silver lining at the moment is the government’s decision to waive the tax for the months of July, August and September. A bus owner pays anywhere between Rs 25,000 and Rs 36,000 every three months.
Daily collection: C9,500 - 11,000
Bata for staff: C2,000
Fuel price: C5,500
C3,500 - C 4,500
Bata for staff: C800
Fuel price: C4,400
Number of buses (state figures)