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A regulatory commission for transport

After a gap of seven years, the Tamil Nadu government had announced a revision of bus fares. There was a compelling necessity, the steep increase in costs of wages, diesel, replacement – that have been contributing in continuous, hefty losses. Just a couple of weeks ago the employees struck work and paralysed the city, demanding long due wage revision. 

The state transport corporations are operating over 22,000 buses across the state. Transport Minister Vijay Bhaskar points to these incurring a loss of around Rs. 9 crore per day with accumulated losses of over Rs. 20,488 crore. These in turn have resulted in poor maintenance of an ageing fleet, low induction of new buses and frequent breakdowns and delays. The contrast is provided by sparkling new buses in southern towns where the government permits private operators to ply alongside the government’s. 

Succession of chief ministers – M Karunanidhi and MGR and J Jayalalithaa, on populist considerations, were reluctant to adjust the fares to meet costs. Over the last 15 years from 2002 Tamil Nadu revised the fares only once during 2011 soon after the AIADMK was returned to power after the elections. In this period Karnataka had revised fares 16 times and Andhra Pradesh and Kerala 8 times. The routine manner of subsidising the losses through budget allocations for years has become untenable with the budget suffering huge deficits. It would make for sense to set up an independent regulatory commission as in the case of power, to determine fares on a regular basis, annual or half-yearly. Even in the case of revision of the state’s electricity tariffs, the state has been reluctant and was compelled to fall in line, thanks to the UDAY scheme. The state has agreed to compensate fully the considerable subsidy element through budget allocations. Still the state has resisted the suggestion for periodic revisions in tariff to meet cost increases. Of course political parties in opposition have been quick to protest, demanding the withdrawal of the hike without offering an alternative robust system to tackle the issue.

Like the Narendra Modi government, the party in power should opt for development. It can open the transport sector, for private competition in phases. Such a course adopted by the Centre in the airline sector, has helped in a spectacular growth of air travel with quite a few private players operating the business efficiently and profitably. But then the strange leftist and populist leanings and lack of concern for viability on the part of the parties of opposition, would not help the government opting for this. It was the DMK leader M Karunanidhi who nationalised passenger transport soon after the DMK came into power in 1967. I remember attending the crowded meeting of bus operators held at the SGS Hall in T Nagar: led by T S Santhanam of TVS, the operators pleading with the then transport minster MK for re-consideration of the nationalisation move, but to no avail.  Jayalalithaa took bold measures to revise bus fares, power tariff, milk prices…in 2011. It is true that the present government lacks a comfortable majority in the legislative assembly. Yet it should opt for development and take the state forward through clean and efficient administration.