KOCHI: The life of Dhanraj B, a driver, was cruising smoothly until one-and-a-half-years ago. Being the lone breadwinner of his family, he always took the responsibility on his shoulders and, being not too ambitious, he was always content. But Covid upset his plans. Dhanraj has been the driver of private bus Ramadevi, which plies on the Cherthala-Kakkanad route.
He used to earn Rs 950 a day as batta alone during pre-Covid times. But when the pandemic struck and lockdown was imposed eventually, his life went for a toss. When private buses were allowed to resume services last September, he felt some relief though there was considerable fall in his income. Then came the second wave, in April this year, which shattered his hopes yet again.
“I had tried many things for survival during the past two months. I went to Chellanam harbour and started selling fish for my livelihood. But without any prior experience, the business ended in a loss,” he said.Bus services resumed last week. However, Dhanraj will not have a regular income as the government has adopted an odd-even number system.
“It means I will have job only three days a week. People are still reluctant to use public transport. An entire day’s collection now is only Rs 1,100, of which, the owner has to pay wages to three workers and meet fuel expenses. The fuel price, which was around Rs 70 per litre a year ago, has now crossed Rs 90-mark. Life has become tough for thousands of private bus workers like me,” said Dhanraj.
He said though the owner of his bus has helped him financially during the lockdown, he cannot bother him anymore. “The owners too have their difficulties,” he said. Meanwhile, private bus owners said the average collection of buses was down to a measly Rs 200 per trip after the nationwide lockdown last year.
“Later, the government eased the curbs. When things started picking up slightly and the average daily collection snaked up to a minimum of Rs 500 per trip, the fuel prices began to go up. Hence, things were back to square one - that’s, bus owners didn’t benefit from the slight rise in daily collection. On the back of it came the second wave, which made things all the more difficult,” said Kerala Private Bus Operators’ Federation (KPBOF) president MB Sathyan.
He pointed out that the price of diesel in November 2020, when the private buses resumed service after the first wave, was Rs 74 per litre. “When we stopped the services in April following the second wave, the price had zoomed to Rs 84 per litre. Now, it has skyrocketed to Rs 94 per litre. That means an increase of Rs 20 per litre within a gap of seven months. If a bus needs 70 litres of diesel on average daily, the owner will have to fork out Rs 6,500 now. This when the total collection has plummeted to Rs 2,400-3,000,” he said.
There were 12,500 private buses operating services in Kerala. Of these, only 10,200 have resumed services after the lockdown this year. “Nearly 2,300 buses have not resumed services due to the heavy dip in returns,” he said.
The private bus operators are hoping that the government will offer some sops and extend the last date for paying tax. “Along with the hike in fuel prices, there has been a steep increase in tyre prices and the cost of spare parts. Overall, we have plunged into heavy losses. Hopefully, the government will address our issues,” he said.