Editorial: Ensure no one is taken for a ride
As cities across the nation are considering reopening the lifelines of the nation, like the local roadways, the question of public transport has come to the fore. The nation’s capital, New Delhi ordered the resumption of public transport services over a week back, adhering to social distancing norms.
In Mumbai, however, owing to the rising number of COVID-19 cases, staffers of the BEST bus services declared a strike from last week onward. Closer home in Tamil Nadu, government bus services resumed in 25 districts, except in hotspots such as Chennai, and Tiruvallur among others. In buses, the government has mandated that only 50 per cent of the seats could be occupied.
However, the 50 per cent occupancy rule would herald a massive loss to government-run transport services. Just this week, a senior official from the state transport corporation went on record to say that if the buses were to be operated with half the capacity, the ticket fares need to be doubled. Otherwise, the government will need to compensate the transport officials for the revenue loss. A mofussil bus needs to collect at least Rs 48 per kilometre on an average to meet operational expenses, but it earns only Rs 26 per kilometre. The government has presently agreed to pay the remainder of the amount. On the other end of the spectrum, private bus operators across Tamil Nadu have already announced that they were mulling a 100 per cent hike in bus fares shortly, which will be a massive pinch for the passengers’ pockets.
Even autorickshaw and cab drivers in the state are a miffed lot. They believe they got a raw deal concerning the manner in which to conduct their operations. They argue that while airlines have been allowed to fly with full capacity - without a requirement to leave the middle seat vacant - taxis can carry only two passengers, while autorickshaws can carry only a single passenger. The lopsided logic has come as a big blow for the majority of those driving these vehicles. They found themselves unable to pay back the EMIs of the automobile loans, due to the complete lockdown over the past two months. And now, the current mandates will only drag them further into more debt.
A minor respite to this scenario is that in case of travel, and medical emergencies, the state government has opened up helpline numbers that can assist in transporting patients for dialysis or immediate treatments. And those opting for taxi cabs or autorickshaws to transport such individuals will need to have health records. However, the system is not foolproof because there are reports of people, especially those showing symptoms of COVID-19, having to walk up to their hospitals due to the absence of ambulances, and other means of transport. A patient in Thane, Maharashtra reportedly walked 7 km to a hospital last week, as there were no emergency vehicles to help him
The Prime Minister’s focus on alleviating India’s pandemic woes with a Rs 20 lakh cr package invited a mixed response. But the ground reality is that the impact of social distancing on the transportation sector and possible losses have not been factored into the relief loop. If getting the economy of the country back on track is a priority, the concerns of the transportation sector - one of the nation’s lifelines – must be addressed at once.