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Monday, November 29, 2021

As MSRTC strike continues, rural students struggle with longer commutes, higher fares

With no clarity about when the strike may end, students in rural areas say they have to walk several kilometres daily, or miss their offline classes. They are often packed into private vehicles for lack of options, and girls have complained of sexual harassment during the commute.

Written by Rupsa Chakraborty | Mumbai |
Updated: November 21, 2021 9:10:28 am
Sarjerao Wedekar (L) and Rahul Pandagale

Higher secondary and college students from remote areas of rural Maharashtra are among those hardest hit by the ongoing strike of Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC) staffers.

On October 20, colleges in the state reopened after almost 18 months. Rahul Pandagale, a final-year student of Elphinstone College, Mumbai, was planning to return to college after Diwali. But due to the MSRTC strike, he is stranded in his village of Hatola, 90 km from the main city of Beed. With his final-year examination scheduled on November 25, he is apprehensive about being able to take the test online due to the poor internet connectivity in his village.

With the transport strike going on for weeks, private vehicles have increased their fares. To travel to Mumbai, Pandagale has to shell out Rs 2,500 for a one-way ticket in a private bus. This cost him Rs 500 in an MSRTC bus.

“My parents are sugarcane cutters. They cannot afford to pay Rs 2,500 for my travel. I have no option but to wait here and hope the strike will end before my exam,” said Pandagale.

“On November 25, if I don’t get proper internet connection, I will fail in my semester, which means I will have to repeat a year.”
Hundreds of students like Pandagale from remote rural and tribal areas of Maharashtra are dependent on MSRTC buses for their daily commute. But after COVID, the strike has become an unforeseen roadblock in their education.

MSRTC is a state-owned transport corporation that runs inter-city and inter-state buses. In rural Maharashtra, it is the only mode of public transport. The staffers have been on strike since October 27, seeking merger of the corporation with the state government so that they can avail of benefits of government employees.

With no clarity about when the strike may end, students in rural areas say they have to walk several kilometres daily, or miss their offline classes. They are often packed into private vehicles for lack of options, and girls have complained of sexual harassment during the commute.
Sarjerao Wedekar’s PhD entrance interview was scheduled on November 9 at Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University, Aurangabad, which is 250 km from his home in Agota village, Hingoli. It takes him six hours to travel the distance in a direct inter-district MSRTC bus. However, due to the strike, it took him over 13 hours to reach Aurangabad by taking six different private buses on November 8.

“The private buses are running with passengers over their seating capacity. Poor people have no option but to take these buses. The journey was so exhausting that I struggled through my interview the next day,” said Wedekar.

“To get more passengers, they rush to drive and race with each other on highways, which is extremely risky,” he added.

With private vehicles charging higher fares, students have asked the state government to impose a cap and regularise fares in private vehicles.
Prerna Pawar, a resident of Ratnagiri, is a class 12 student at Dr Tanajirao Chorge Jr College, which is 25 km from her village. Pre-pandemic, she used to take an MSRTC monthly pass of Rs 650. Now, for the same distance, private vehicles charge Rs 100 daily.

As her farmer parents couldn’t spend Rs 100 daily, she would walk 10 km – halfway to her college – and then catch a pool car. But after walking 20 km daily to and from college for four days last week, she strained a nerve in her leg.

“After missing online classes in the lockdown, I am again falling behind in my offline classes as I am going to school on alternate days… I am worried about my grades,” said Pawar.

“As all colleges have reopened, rural students cannot even attend online cases. Either the government should arrange for their daily commute or reimburse the fare,” said Budhbhushan Kamble, president of Ambedkar Student Association.

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