Badals, buses and public losses
How the public transport sector was manipulated by political bigwigs at the cost of the state exchequer and the weaker sections in Punjab
Prabhjot Singh, Tribune News Service
Chandigarh, September 26. When the Lokpal of Punjab, Daljit Singh Dhaliwal, recently ordered an inquiry into the alleged illegal operation of buses belonging to private transporters of Punjab in the Union Territory of Chandigarh he was evidently looking at only the tip of the iceberg.
An investigation by the Tribune team has revealed that there is more to it than just charges of illegal operation in the transport sector. There has been over the years a serious manipulation of transport policy that has favoured private operating agencies, owned by political bigwigs, at the cost of the state exchequer, the state-owned public transport organisations and also the poor of Punjab.
Those who own private transport buses are a veritable who’s who of Punjab politics. The list includes Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, his son and Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, PPP President Manpreet Singh Badal, Vidhan Sabha Speaker Nirmal Singh Kahlon, BJP MLA Jagdish Saini, former Congress legislators Avtar Singh Henry, Amrik Singh Dhillon and Jasbir Singh Dimpa besides families of the late Akali legislator Kirpal Singh Libra and Congress’ Dilbagh Singh.
In his petition to the Lokpal, a Chandigarh-based lawyer Arvind Thakur challenged the permission granted in 2009 by General S.F. Rodrigues, the then Governor of Punjab and Administrator of Chandigarh, that allowed private bus operators of Punjab to extend their services to the Union Territory. General Rodrigues had reportedly permitted 73 buses belonging to Punjab private bus operators. Inspector-General of Police S L Gakhar, attached to the Lokpal, has been asked to conduct an inquiry and submit his report by November 1 this year.
The charges of illegal operation are only a tiny bone of the many skeletons in the cupboard of Punjab’s public transport sector. When The Tribune conducted an extensive survey of the transport sector of Punjab, it came across a suspiciously high growth of private buses operating in the lucrative luxury and super luxury sectors of public transport in the state. Unremunerative sectors, including services to rural and remote areas, still remain with the public sector.
As a result the two state public sector transport corporations, Punjab Roadways (PR) and Pepsu Road Transport Corporation (PRTC) are facing crippling losses. For instance, Punjab Roadways, the larger of the two state owned transport corporations, had in 2001, 2553 permits to operate on various routes and 2369 buses. By 2009-10, the number of permits declined marginally to 2327 but there was a drastic fall in the number of buses. Punjab Roadways now has only 1,568 buses — 800 less than in 2001 and its losses mounted to Rs 72.6 crores last year. In the PRTC’s case, while its permits and buses remained somewhat stable (it has 1,242 route permits and 1089 buses) it is also facing the heat from private operators. It’s losses are mounting and in 2008-09 amounted to Rs 7.57 crores.
While in 2001, state-owned buses totalled 3513, private operators had 2,766. But by 2009-10 the situation was totally reversed. While state owned buses have declined to 2657, buses owned by the private sector have grown to 3,949 – almost 1,200 more in the past decade or almost 25 per cent growth much of it coming in the last four years. The kilometres covered in these two sectors also tell the same story. While kilometres traversed by the Punjab Roadways buses have decline from 6.74 lakh kms in 2000-01 to 4.40 lakh, the kilometres logged by private bus operators have gone up from 6.82 lakh to 9 lakh during the same period.
But it’s not just the numbers that tell the story. It’s the growth in the highly profitable luxury sector as well as permits for prime time operation as highly remunerative routes that are most revealing. For instance, while PR and the PRTC have only 132 luxury buses, private operators have 203. And in the slightly better class known as integral buses, while the state owned sector has only 37 buses, the private operators have 75. And in the super-integral class, the state owned buses have been left out and the private sector has only 17 – a virtual monopoly.
Overall, in the lucrative luxury segment, while the state owned sector has only 169 buses, private sector dominate and now has 293 buses. No prizes for guessing who among the private operators dominate this sector. It is estimated that the CM and his son Sukhbir, control directly and indirectly 167 buses in the luxury sector. These luxury buses are the ones that enjoy a major tax concession which the Badal government gave in 2008 and implemented from 2009. Not surprising that it happened when they were in power.