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Old bump on new bus route

Calcutta, Oct. 12: Five private bus operators the Bengal government has sounded out as a possible fallback option have insisted on a viable business model — the absence of which is blamed for the current mess in public transport in the state.

Representatives of the five private transport companies took part in an unpublicised meeting at Writers’ Buildings yesterday.

While Gireesh Infrastructure Pvt Ltd from Hyderabad and Silicon Tours and Travels from Bangalore are based outside the state, Rose Valley Group, Kaushik Logistics Private Limited and Waris Group have local roots.

They were among six companies that had evinced interest after the government had advertised for companies keen to join hands with the government to run buses across the state.

The government was represented at the meeting by transport secretary B.P. Gopalika and other senior officials.

“The government officials told us that they would determine the fare structure while offering route permits but there was no word on whether the operations would be viable. We don’t mind the government having the final say on fares and routes but there has to be a solid business plan to justify our operations,” said the managing director of a Calcutta-based company that has the UP State Road Transport Corporation as one if its clients.

Some participants said that governments in other states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh too play a role in fixing fares but market principles and viability of operations are taken into consideration. “The government has to understand that we cannot run on a route if the operation is resulting in losses,” said one of the operators.

The state government is facing a similar demand from the entire phalanx of existing transport operators who are pressing for a fare hike to ensure a viable business model.

The government has refused permission to revise the rates, following which the operators have withdrawn buses to cut losses.

The fleet has shrunk despite threats by the government to cancel permits. “Yesterday’s meeting was convened to test whether the plan to bring in new operators to fill the void can be executed,” confirmed an official.

A senior official said the transport department had set a target of rolling out at least 500 new buses through these operators as early as possible. “All the operators were asked to submit a detailed proposal within a week as the government was in a hurry to fix the problem,” said the official.

But representatives of two transport operators to whom The Telegraph spoke said that the lure of a permit alone was not enough.

“We will be taking bank loans to buy buses, so we need handsome returns. Till now, the government has been silent on what would happen if some of the routes do not prove viable. Besides, we haven’t been told about basic details like the volume of passengers and condition of roads for any given route,” said a representative.

Flexibility on switching routes — a way to cut losses — was not discussed in detail, either.

The infrastructure — well-maintained terminal bus stops with passenger amenities and round-the-clock booking facilities — to support the private operators also came up for discussion.

“We have sought more details. We need these details to take a decision,” the representative said.