More than 650 out of the 940 new bus permits on offer to bridge the demand-supply mismatch in Calcutta haven’t found any takers, leaving daily commuters fighting for a foothold on overcrowded buses.
Not only have most transport operators refused new permits, many have decided not to renew their old permits, blaming the Mamata Banerjee government’s no-fare-hike policy for ruining the economics of running buses.
Transport department figures updated till February 22 show 286 new applicants for bus permits, still 654 short of the target. The sanctioned strength of the city’s bus fleet is 4,496, out of which 3,556 permits have been issued.
The size of the city’s minibus fleet too is smaller than the sanctioned strength of 2,139. Of the 436 new permits on offer, only 69 had been applied for till February 22.
“Bus fares have not been revised in keeping with the hikes in oil prices and other allied costs…. Taking a new permit would mean inviting an EMI of Rs 25,000-Rs 27,000 on a new bus, whose cost would be around Rs 18-20 lakh,” said Samir Mukherjee, who owns a bus plying on route 24A (Tiljala-Howrah).
“After a down payment of around Rs 5 lakh, you would struggle to earn Rs 1,500 a day with the existing fare structure. What’s the incentive for investment?” he demanded.
Mukherjee, who proclaims himself “a Trinamul supporter”, fails to understand Mamata Banerjee’s policy of refusing to hike fares for the sake of populism.
On Monday, a group of bus operators had met transport minister Madan Mitra to demand a fare revision, only to be told that the government had no plan to make an upward revision immediately.
On Tuesday, minister Mitra refused to concede that the offer of bus permits hadn’t found many takers. He claimed that the transport department had to conduct a draw of lots to select a few from among many applicants for permits.
“There has been a grand simplification of the entire process of getting permits and bank loans for new buses. As a result, demand is picking up,” Mitra said.
Bus operators contested the claim, saying that demand was restricted to a maximum of 14 viable routes out of 86 in Calcutta and its fringes.
“I have not applied for the renewal of my permit because the route is not profitable,” said Manash Chakrabarty, whose permit is for route 241 (Akra-Esplanade).
“Within four to five years of starting my business, I ended up with a loan burden of around Rs 4.5 lakh. The price of diesel kept shooting up and the government refused to increase fares accordingly. So I decided to take my bus back to the garage for good.”
Trinamul leaders of the bus operators’ union controlling route 241 admitted that no operator was willing to ply new buses between Akra and Esplanade.
“Around 32 buses used to ply on routes 241 and 241A. The number has dwindled to 16…. Although there are slots for permits, nobody is applying,” said Surajit Gayen, secretary of the Trinamul-led union for these two routes.
Sources said around 4,000 buses, including minis, had gone off the city roads. Operators of buses financed under the JNNURM are the worst-hit, a trend reflected in the withdrawal of 400 out of 685 such vehicles.
“Bus owners from different routes, including 30C, 217 and L-238, have already written to the government that they would like to give up their JNNURM buses. But the government has not taken these buses back because there is no such provision,” said Pradip Ghosh, president of the JNNURM Bus Operators’ Welfare Association.