Buses will go off roads, owners warn

Calcutta, Nov. 17: Buses will go off the roads again, transport operators warned a day after the government slashed fares to a level that many vehicle owners believe would make business unviable.

The Mamata Banerjee government announced a hike of Re 1 to Rs 3, depending on distance, on October 31. But it rolled back the hike to a uniform Re 1 for every slab yesterday, playing the same populist card that had stalled the revision for 18 months and virtually crippled the transport sector.

"Buses would again vanish from the roads," said Deepak Sarkar, the president of the Bengal Bus Syndicate. "In the new fare format, it will be impossible to keep the industry alive."

"Pre-November, a private bus operator would spend around Rs 1,714 a day but earn no more than Rs 1,200," said a private bus operator. "After the revision, we had hoped to break even. But the sudden fare slash will leave us bleeding, forcing us to return to the days when plying buses was a loss-making affair."

Almost 60 per cent of the buses that ply in Calcutta had disappeared from the roads in the past few months as the government refused a fare hike.

Apparently aware of the discontent brewing among the private operators again, transport minister Madan Mitra met a section of private bus owners this evening but failed to offer any hope.

"We told the minister that even paying EMIs to the bank would become difficult. The government should not play populist at the cost of our livelihood," said Sadhan Das of the Joint Council of Bus Syndicates.

The last time fares were hiked three years ago, diesel cost Rs 35.03 a litre. The fuel now costs Rs 50.79 a litre.

The state transport corporations, which had hoped to cut down on losses, are also unhappy.

At a meeting with representatives of the state transport corporations, industries minister Partha Chatterjee, also the chairman of the group of ministers on transport, today made it clear that state buses would also be allowed to hike fares only by Re 1 and according to the old stage break-up.

"The hike should be Re 1 per stage. Not more," Chatterjee said. "The new order will be issued next week."

Even a section of government officials rued the opportunity lost in cutting down on the annual Rs 600-crore subsidy to the transport corporations. "If the government doesn't allow us to earn money from ticket sales, how does it expect the corporations to turn around and be profit-making bodies?" asked an official of the Calcutta State Transport Corporation.

Passengers and bus conductors fought over what was the right fare.

The conductors insisted on following the chart (issued on November 6) and the passengers on the Re 1 hike Chatterjee announced yesterday.

Most buses insisted on the higher fares. "Till we receive the revised chart, we cannot understand the fare break-up," said Monaranjan Mondal, a conductor.