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Sunday, January 17, 2021

Gujarat: Drivers, caretakers of private school buses stare at penury as industry yet to revive

With most companies facing losses or closure due to the coronavirus induced-lockdown, he had to toil hard to get a new job.

Written by Ritu Sharma | Ahmedabad | Updated: January 6, 2021 8:39:06 pm
In better times, the company used to run over 180 buses and vans for 15 schools across Ahmedabad.(Javed Raja/File)

After losing his job as a driver and sitting at home for over six months, 47-year-old S N Saiyed had no choice but to begin looking for daily-wage work to support his family of four. “Nobody was ready to offer that too, and those who did were ready to exploit,” Saiyed says.

For nine years, Saiyed worked at the Urban Transport, a company that provides school buses on hire, and drew a monthly salary of Rs 15,000. The last salary he received was in March last year, which was Rs 5,000 short. Soon after, he and the other staff were asked to leave as his employer could no longer pay them a salary.

With most companies facing losses or closure due to the coronavirus induced-lockdown, he had to toil hard to get a new job. And it was not until October last year that Saiyed got one, this time as a driver with the Ahmedabad Municipal Transport Service (AMTS). “The job pays 15-day salary at Rs 390 per day as contract drivers are assigned routes on alternate days. The monthly salary of around Rs 8,000 in cash is hardly enough,” he says.

After paying 5,000 as rent for accommodation, besides other charges, the family was reduced to penury. Saiyed’s wife, Nilofar, has had to mortgage the little jewellery she had. “I had just started sewing work from home with the machine I bought last year on Rs 25,000 loan from a private shop. The shopkeeper has been demanding the Rs 1,700 monthly installments which are due,” she says.

Nilofar would sew traditional skirts and blouses for an additional income that would pay for their children’s education. But with no garba, large-scale weddings, and festivals due to the pandemic, she has got few orders in the last few months. To cover expenses, their 15-year-old son is now working at a nearby shop. “I know it is not right, but I have no other option,” Saiyed says.

Since mid-March, schools across Gujarat have been physically closed and are only imparting online classes that have in turn put the transport service providers out of job. Several parking lots, The Indian Express visited saw dusty school buses covered with wild vines, telling the tale of a sector bearing the brunt of the pandemic. From January 11, the state government has announced the reopening of classes 10 and 12 across boards.

Mahesh Prajapati (33) also lost his job as a school bus driver in March. Already under a Rs 1.5 lakh debt, which he took for his wife’s fertility treatment, he says, “After I lost my job during the lockdown, I took Rs 50,000 from relatives. But how long will they bear with my financial woes?” He now works as a daily-wage welder at Telav village on Ahmedabad’s outskirts.

Binal Patel (32), a resident of Bopal area, also drove school buses at Urban Transport for 15 years. After he received his last salary of Rs 11,000 in June, his family of eight has been dependant on the earnings of his father and brother, who make a total of Rs 17,000 per month as a private security guard and salesman, respectively.

“I have been hunting for a job for the last four months. I was willing to work as a security guard at residential colonies, but nothing materialised. Everywhere I went, I was told that they will get back in two-three days but none did,” Patel says.

Saiyed, Prajapati and Patel’s employer, Virbhadra Chauhan is the second generation to take charge of the 35-year-old family business of transportation — Urban Transport. The 30-year-old says 2020 was the worst year businesses had seen. The company, which has once employed 150 drivers and an equal number of helpers, all women, along with eight supervisors and two cleaning staff, is now staring at bankruptcy.

Under debt of Rs 22 crore acquired for expansion over the last three years from nearly a dozen financial institutions, including five private banks, the company has outstanding monthly installments of Rs 72 lakh. Chauhan claims to have met different state government officials who offered only assurances but no support or relaxation. “If no miracle happens, we will be filing for bankruptcy soon,” he says.

In better times, the company used to run over 180 buses and vans for 15 schools across Ahmedabad. Over the last nine months, the buses and vans have weathered out in the open yard where they have been parked. “We also tried to use these buses as staff buses for private companies but there were not many takers,” Chauhan adds.

On the recent exemption for vehicles registered before April 1, 2017, in the names of schools, colleges, and other educational institutions from the Motor Vehicle Tax for non-use from April 1, 2020, to December 31, 2020, Chauhan says, “Whoever has taken this decision, has not considered all the aspects. What about vehicles registered after April 2017, and why only for vehicles registered under the schools. It is a known fact that in most cases these vehicles are operated by contract transporters. In a way, the state government has offered relief to schools only and not the transporters.”

Schools, too, have questioned the relief offered by the state government. “It is very rare that schools or education institutes have the ownership of these vehicles as a majority of them are outsourced from transporters. Schools are still able to bear the costs with 75 per cent of the tuition fee they are charging but with zero per cent revenue for transporters, it is tough for them to survive,” Manan Choksi, president of Association of Progressive Schools (AOPS), says.

Will drivers, mostly male, have been able to take odd jobs, women employed as helpers in transport firms have been major sufferers. “Most of the male drivers have taken odd jobs but it is the female helpers of these school buses who have very limited options,” Akash Sharma, the operational manager of Chartered Transport service, one of the largest transporters in Ahmedabad, says.

Amita Satware (30), a resident of Chandkheda has not been able to pay the school fees for her son, a Class 3 student, since May. She was earning Rs 9,000 per month working as a helper in the school bus employed by the Chartered Transport. “My husband, who was working with a lift repair and maintenance company, is unemployed for over two months now. The house is running on my father-in-law’s income as a construction labourer, and mother-in-law’s earnings from a few sewing works she gets,” Amita says.

For Tarulata Rajput, her first job as a helper or caretaker on a school bus, taking care of children and ensuring they reach school and home safely, was satisfying as she could finally support her husband, who earned Rs 12,000 per month as a marketing agent in a tea company. “We have not celebrated any festival this entire year. Our savings dried up when we both lost our jobs. My husband took Rs 10,000 on credit from his friends on Diwali, as we had already taken a loan against my jewellery,” she says.

Living in the walled area of Gomtipur, she had looked for jobs at the several garment factories in the apparel park but she said no one is ready to hire new people amid Covid-19. She received 50 per cent of her salary between April and June before she was laid off with assurances: “we will call you when things get better”.

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