The Punjab government recently notified a new transport policy, nearly a year after the Amarinder Singh cabinet gave it its go ahead. The Indian Express explains what the policy is about, what impact it will have on bus services and the private bus transport business in Punjab.
What is the new transport policy?
The new transport policy, the draft for which was prepared in July 2017 as per the guidelines given by the Punjab and Haryana High Court in 2012, includes an overhaul of the state transport department, but is mainly directed at curtailing private bus operations.
Under the new scheme, the government has begun the process to cancel over 3,000 route extensions, diversions, number of trips, and curtailment of trips of bus services belonging to 56 private transport companies.
Punjab State Transport Commissioner B S Dhaliwal said government told the court on February 23 that it had issued notices to transport companies which obtained extensions, diversions, curtailment and increase and decrease in trips. As per the new policy, fresh permits for air conditioned buses will be now given only to State Transport Undertakings.
Why are private bus operators being targeted?
Private passenger transporters were seen to have gained the upper hand at the expense of the state transport bus service, significantly in the 10 years that the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP alliance was in power. The Badal family, which heads SAD, directly owns some bus companies and has varying stakes in others.
The Akali government had granted operators several route extensions to make the original route permit more profitable. For instance, if the original permit was from Bathinda to Ludhiana, with extensions, it eventually became a service to Chandigarh. Back in 2012, the High Court had ordered the cancellation of all route extensions to private bus operators, over the single 24 km extension permitted under The Motor Vehicles Act 1988.
It had also asked the government to end the monopoly of private players that ran inter-state AC buses into adjoining State, as State Transport Undertaking buses did not get a level playing field because they could not compete on the type of buses, including super luxury buses, that private players put on the road.
During the campaign for the 2017 Assembly elections, Congress’s chief ministerial candidate Amarinder Singh had promised a transport policy that would end the “monopoly of the Badals” in the passenger bus segment. He said Badal buses had seen a 17 per cent increase since Akalis came to power in 2007. But it took the Congress government nearly a year to notify the new policy. Apart from the Badals, a number of politicians across party lines run bus services.
So how does the new policy affect the Badals’ bus interests?
To be clear, the new policy does not touch original permits, including for AC buses, only extensions, diversions, number of trips and curtailment of service. Over one-fifth of the permits earmarked for cancellation, 626 out of 3,000, will affect buses owned by companies in which SAD president and former deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal and his wife and union cabinet minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal are shareholders. This is the single largest chunk to be affected.
Orbit Aviation Private Limited leads the tally with 267 of its non-AC routes getting affected. These include 173 extensions, 18 diversions, 37 curtailments, 32 increased trips and seven decreased trips. Dabwali Transport Company Pvt Ltd is set to lose 148 permits – 101 extensions, 6 diversions, 18 curtailments, 18 increased trips and 5 decreased trips.
Taj Travels Pvt. Ltd stands to lose 53 permits – 27 extensions, 9 diversions, 10 cutailments, six increased trips and one decreased trips. Also set to be cancelled are 158 permits of Hoshiarpur based Rajdhani Transport Company acquired by Badals in 2016 — 60 of these permits relate to extensions, 44 to diversions, 1 to curtailment and 53 to increased trips. Additionally, out of 85 affected route permits of inter-state air-conditioned buses, 50 belong to companies run by Badals alone.
Who are the other affected operators?
Out of 151 permits of New Deep Motors owned by Akali leader Dimpy Dhillon, 57 relate to extensions, 15 to diversions, 29 to curtailments and 40 to increased trips. With over 150 permits of Gidderbaha-based New Deep Motors owned by Akali leader Hardeep Singh ‘Dimpy’ Dhillon is also set to take a big hit. Dhillon is a known Badal family protege. Ambala Bus Syndicate Private Limited owned by transporter Ujagar Singh will lose 124 permits, and Libra Bus Service Pvt Limited Malerkotla owned by transporter Fateh Singh will lose 95. The list also include transport companies run by Congress leaders Avtar Henry (who owns Jalandhar-based Kartar Bus Service Private Limited (117 permits to be affected)) and Amarjit Singh Samra (owner of the Kapurthala based Prince Bus and Transport Company Limited (51 permits to be affected)).
Have the Badals and the others said anything about these cancellations?
SAD president Sukhbir Singh Badal said increased privatisation had ensured that “Punjab has the best quality of bus service”. On the Punjab government’s plan to give only STU AC buses permits in future, Badal said, “The Punjab government does not have money to pay salaries of the employees. How will it buy new buses? The government says state coffers are empty. Whatever decision the government takes, it should keep in people in mind and not politics.”
Dhillon said, “We set up the empire by raising loans only after transport officials gave the permisssions. We only went by the policy formulated by the officials. If they did it wrong, punish the officials.” He said the curtailment would hit the public most.
Libra Bus Service Private Limited Managing Director Fateh Singh said, “Whatever happened, it was as per law and policy formulated. What is the guarantee that the new policy is immune to being changed at a subsequent time? If they invite new applications, what is the guarantee that government would be fair to common, unemployed people?” Singh said that a number of marginal transporters will also find themselves at receiving end due to new policy.
Congressman Henry said he would look into the new policy before commenting. “The extensions were as per policy which was struck down. We will look into the policy and give a response accordingly.” Former minister Samra, who has been appointed as Markfed chairman by Congress government, equated the new policy to “purane dabe murde pattan wali gal aa” (it is like pulling something from past). Samra said it would “wreak havoc in Punjab and cause inconvenience to people”.
So how are the cancellations playing out on the ground? Are bus services paralysed?
No changes have yet taken place on the ground. According to State Transport Commissioner B S Dhaliwal, notices have been sent to the bus companies, and replies are awaited. Punjab Transport Secretary Sarvjit Singh said new transport scheme had been notified and to ensure that bus services were not paralysed, the transport department will issue new permits on the routes where permits will be cancelled after receiving replies to the notices.