Failed experiment of providing public transport through private partners raises questions about such ventures
It was in December last year that Rajkot in Gujarat acquired a city bus service after a gap of nearly an year. The experiment of providing public transportation service through a private firm, however, proved shortlived when Vitcos Transportation Ltd, the company contracted to run the buses, withdrew its services in July this year. Promises by the state finance minister and MLA Vajubhai Vala to not let the city bus service go off the road under any circumstances have proved hollow.
Vitcos had started its operations with 14 buses; the fleet was later increased to 35 buses, which was still below the half way mark of the target of 75 buses for 56 city routes. Vitcos withdrew even these 35 buses after it started facing administrative problems. When asked for the reason for the failure of the bus service, the chairperson of Vitcos, Haresh Dodiya, says that shortage of manpower was the main reason for pulling out the buses. “There were not enough foremen to repair the buses on time,” he adds. Since the withdrawal of bus services, the city municipal corporation has issued notice to Vitcos, asking it to resume bus services, but in vain.
Chirag Pandya, who heads the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) wing of the Rajkot Municipal Corporation (RMC), says that Vitcos proved to be managerially incapable of running the bus service. Financial problems were another reason. “We have blacklisted Vitcos. We plan to procure the buses and run them on our own from December onwards,” Pandya adds. But till then commuters will have no reliable public transport.
Even when the buses were running, the state of the services had riled commuters. Rajen Shukla, a local commuter, complains: “buses were not regular; no time table existed; waiting time at bus stops was in excess of 15 minutes; and no phone number existed for lodging complaints and there was no accountable transport committee in the Rajkot Municipal Corporation.”
With no city bus service in place at all and autorickshaws being unaffordable, city residents are opting for private cars and two-wheelers. The sale of two-wheelers in Rajkot has increased considerably as they are cheaper and more cost-effective as compared to cars, given the inflation and fuel prices. Those who cannot afford either are left with no option but to take a combination of chakkda (local bullet-buggy) rickshaws or walk on foot.
The Rajkot experience is yet another reminder of the poor model of private participation followed in the country for providing public transport. Many Indian cities are preparing to hand over running of buses to private players for financial and managerial reasons. But without performance benchmarks, regulatory oversight, stringent service contract, manpower mobilisation and accountability, these investments can be a serious risk. This will also compromise public transport, desperately needed in Indian cities to stem the tide of vehicular congestion and pollution.
Bus services, play an imperative role as a flexible, reliable, affordable and consistent mode of mass transport. Without it, mobility becomes unsustainable as evident in Rajkot.
Many other cities including Ujjain, Jalgaon and Indore that have faced similar fate like Rajkot has raised the larger question relating to private sector participation in providing public transport (see 'Bus systems collapsing in other cities, too'). Transport experts point at two major reasons for failures. One pertains to poor drafting of the concession agreement with the private player and second pertains to non-profitability for the private player. Expert Laghu Parashar of Urban Mass Transit Company (UMTC), a joint venture of the Union Ministry of Urban Development, Andhra Pradesh government and private consultant Infrastructure LEasing and Financial Services, says: “Such players are not financially backed and are not very capable. In the event of losses, their whole operation and management collapses and they withdraw bus services. Therefore, it is important to ensure profitability of these private players and ensure that the terms of the PPP agreement are properly defined and adhered to.”
In addition to this, cities now need to urgently set up dedicated urban transport fund by tapping revenue from different heads like vehicle taxation, parking revenue and advertisement revenue to meet funding requirements of bus reforms.
Ultimately, the model will work if clear strategies are adopted by the city authorities to improve bus ridership. This is a serious constraint today in cities, especially smaller cities where most of the public transport requirements are met by the high-frequency, small-para-transit vehicles like three-wheelers. There is also a growing dependence on personal vehicles like two-wheelers that, in the absence of focused vehicle taxation policy, are cheaper to use.
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