Privatization of public transport: the risks to come

A Delhi transport company bus. Photo: Ramesh NG / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

As a history student, I was curious about the evolution of the best bus services in Mumbai. My quest for truth finally led me to the BEST Bus Museum located at Anik Depot in Sion. Although it highlights the deep and enriching history of the evolution of the city’s transportation system, I was disheartened by the dilapidated conditions not only of the museum, but also of the cluttered and dirty workplace. Not much has changed since. Instead of introducing reforms to initiate a culture of a healthy work environment, there have been proposals to privatize the space. This is a sign of the government’s comprehensive approach, tending towards the exit of public services not only secondary, but also essential in urban metropolises. The privatization of public transport is only one element of this comprehensive strategy.

The government has embarked on a process to reduce its role in many strategic and non-strategic sectors. In the 2019-2020 budget speech, the Minister of Finance unveiled the 102 lakh crore National Infrastructure Pipeline. This is a strong participation of the private sector which, according to the government, will help attract a pool of experienced developers, finance professionalism, effective dispute resolution and also attract actors who are not in. able to participate in the Public-Private Partnership (PPP). As India’s transport sector is the fastest growing area of ​​infrastructure and is expected to grow annually at the rate of 5.9%, plans to deregulate and increase private competition are being considered. and implemented also in public transport services.

Robust transport infrastructure in metropolitan cities is necessary to manage the increase in population and migration. Professor Amita Bhide, dean of the School of Habitat Studies Center at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, found in her research that 77% of road space is occupied by private vehicles, resulting in traffic jams. In addition, there are fewer bus fleets available for public transport services.

In 2017, while the demand for public buses was around 3.74 lakh, only 1 lakh of buses were operating on the roads. Even when commuter rail transport is a significant part of daily travel in metropolitan cities, it cannot be denied that buses are still used for last mile connectivity as well as for collection services.

Professor Geetam Tiwari of IIT Delhi, who has around 25 years of professional experience in transport planning, argues that efficient bus services can be the cheapest overall mode of transport in urban areas. But in most states, the situation of public enterprises in the sector is gloomy and they are therefore pushing for the privatization of public transport to reorganize the whole structure.


Read more: What will it take for our city bus systems to keep fares low while reducing losses?


Privatization of bus transport in Delhi and Mumbai

Delhi bus services have been an exemplary model for many cities across the country. This process of systematically inviting private actors to operate urban bus services began here in the early 1990s. Some researchers argue that such decisions were made due to increased subsidies, corporate dependency. state vis-à-vis public loans, declining bus occupancy rates, increased corruption and ineffective management.

Delhi state governments have experimented with various models of privatizing public transport, especially buses. One of them was Delhi’s infamous Blueline bus system. It was a fully privatized system where buyers were responsible for the operation of the buses as well as their maintenance. Due to increased competition between private players, there have been incidents of reckless driving, frequent violations of standards, increased fares as well as irregular schedules. They began to be known as the “killer buses”. After much deliberation, this model began to be phased out from 2008.

A blueline bus in the streets of Delhi
A ‘Blueline’ bus in Delhi. Photo: Steve KC / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Currently, the government applies a cluster-based approach where private entities operate their buses in the allocated clusters and maintain the fleet as well as the staff. They are encouraged to use an index system based on their performance and the quality of their services.

On the other hand, BEST bus services in Mumbai, which currently has a size of around 3,900 buses, has taken around 1,100 crewed rental buses. As part of the rental with crew, BEST buys the buses from contractors for a fixed price per kilometer. The contractor provides both the bus and the driver, and also takes care of maintenance. BEST plans to take at least 4,800 more in the near future – the bus privatization plan is in full swing.

The public-private partnership dilemmas (PPP)

Does the PPP offer obvious advantages compared to the “purely” public and private modes of exploitation of urban infrastructures? Advocates of PPPs believe that private actors provide effective management systems, provide finance and create opportunities for knowledge transfer from advanced economies. Recently, even the central government announced a new program to operate 20,000 buses on the PPP model. But the evidence does not match.

Restructuring is crippled by its own problems. One of these problems is rampant contracting. Most private sector workers are hired on a temporary basis. This leads to irregular and low wages, lack of social benefits and recurrent exploitation by the authorities. In April and May of this year, several BEST drivers went on a sudden strike to protest overwork and underpayment. Leasing also involves the employment of existing workers. While the Delhi and Mumbai unions have repeatedly raised their concerns, the grievances remain unresolved.


Read more: What BEST Workers Get By Running Mumbai During COVID-19


Anita Kapoor, who is associated with the Urban Women Workers Union in Delhi, advocates for an inclusive urban transport policy, as most women depend on public bus transport for their work. Thus, there is also a gender dimension to the consequences of the privatization of public transport in terms of access.

Privatization does not even guarantee efficiency, as it depends largely on management. A BEST executive complained that even crewed rental buses operate without drivers. These buses sometimes stop at any place, which causes a lot of trouble for an ordinary man. In some cities, there have been cases where private operators have allegedly charged exorbitant prices as well.

Suggested alternatives

It is the business of any elected government to work for the public welfare. Thus, any public transportation system intended for use by the public must be regulated so that it remains safe, efficient, accessible, affordable and available to all.

“Reclaiming The Bus” is one such campaign for free, safe and reliable public bus transport. It is organized by the Institute for Democracy and Sustainability in association with the Sustainable Urban Mobility Network (SUMNet) India. The campaign is also pushing for the formulation of a public bus policy in Delhi, which can get the government to commit to improving bus services within a specified time frame.

The Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system developed in Curitiba, Brazil, focuses on separate express lanes that have increased average bus speeds, reduced maintenance costs, and reduced traffic pollution. environment. Cities like Indore, Ahmedabad and Surat have also integrated different models of BRT system with the aim of increasing bus ridership. To increase ridership, they also suggested removing unfair taxes (property tax, toll tax, etc.) and introducing fees and fines that can be used for their income. Since there is a separate budget allocation for infrastructure, it may be useful to move the public bus transport system from service category to infrastructure.

With increasing urbanization, the demand for public buses will certainly increase in the future. Public transport systems are fans of the poor and marginalized segments of society. They facilitate the livelihoods of the poor and give them access to mobility. We cannot and must not allow the system to collapse.

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