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‘Fractured Fleet’

07:30 AM Jan 16, 2022 IST | Nazir Ganaie
‘fractured fleet’
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Jammu and Kashmir State Road Transport Corporation (SRTC)— one of the oldest road corporations in India, is said to be going off the track—with liabilities mounting unabatedly.

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Greater Kashmir in an investigation has learnt that there are a few reasons for SRTC’s mounting losses—which include piling of liabilities, shortage of technical manpower, lack of drivers, debt, absence of new restructuring model, faulty administrative policies, ineffective operational efficiencies, a whopping amount (49 crore) that other government-run departments owe it and most importantly implementation of ‘State Transport Policy’.

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The Jammu and Kashmir’s public transporter’s fleet is badly hit as there are miniscule number of drivers manning it. This newspaper during a 3-day-long visit to the yards and SRTC offices in Srinagar learnt that several new trucks and buses and other sophisticated machines are lying unattended as there is a huge shortage of drivers with the corporation. However, the corporation has recently empanelled a few contractors who provide them manpower.

“We are facing a shortage of drivers and currently we are short of at least 400 new drivers,” a senior official of the corporation said. This not only results in incurring huge financial losses rising each year to the corporation but also paints a grim picture of the corporation here and elsewhere. “I haven’t seen this grim picture of SRTC in my entire service career,” a senior official of the corporation, wishing anonymity, told Greater Kashmir.

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“We are not only suffering financially but our entire bus and truck fleets are also badly hit,” he said, adding “The future of J&K’s ‘lifeline’, SRTC, is growing fainter by the day. It is not just about SRTC’s survival, but even the legacy of it that seems to be going away.”

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‘Fractured Fleet’

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According to insiders, the corporation was badly hit during the decade’s old turmoil, while several political events and 2014 devastating floods created havoc to the already fractured fleet. They said that there was a time when the number of employees would outnumber the fleet of trucks and buses across Jammu and Kashmir. However, with each passing year, the fleet grew but there are a few drivers who keep it going.

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“At one stage, our fleet was too small for its hundreds of employees because the corporation proved to be a rehabilitation cell for politically connected job seekers,” said a senior official.

As the corporation lost most of its routes to private players, only few routes remained left for it—which it could not retain for lack of a proper working fleet. The officials said that the corporation earlier had the Department of Food Civil Supplies and Public Distribution as its most “loyal” and “big-time” client, however due to many reasons, the relationship always witnessed ups and downs.

“When your potential clients turn their back toward you, it harms you financially as well as your morale gets down. Same happened with us. We had to face the worst from all sides,” they added.

Started with much fanfare, the city’s women only (Ladies Special) bus services have also stopped operating on the routes—causing inconvenience to the commuters.

These episodes created a situation that the corporation is solely dependent on grants from the government. There were serious efforts to encourage the corporation to stand on its feet but all the efforts failed. For the last over 10 years, the SRTC has been getting Rs 30 crore as financial support—which would add to the modest earnings to keep the show going.

“We have requested the government to increase the budget support. However, nothing has been done in that regard. We had even requested to enhance it to Rs 80 crore so that mounting liabilities are cleared at the earliest,” Corporation’s senior employee, working in its finance section, said.

‘Employee Grievances’

Scores of retired employees from the SRTC staged a protest at Press Colony recently. The aggrieved former employees of the said that they retired in mid-2019 and are awaiting benefits like leave salary and other post-retirement benefits.

“Our pleas are falling on deaf ears,” Abdul Majeed, former employee said.

“We are on the verge of starvation. After getting no response from SRTC, we reached to higher officials who wrote to concerned officials to address the issue. We were assured last year that our pending benefits will be released in 10 days but nothing was done.” They said that over 200 employees retired in 2019 and are awaiting the benefits.

In August 2021, 543 retired employees of the corporation comprising sweepers, helpers, cleaners, bus washers, assistants, conductors and drivers, primarily had gone to the court and their petition was allowed. The court observed that the employees are entitled to all these benefits on the analogy of their counterparts in the Jammu and Kashmir Industries Ltd and other corporations.

The corporation was hit by the turmoil as most of its ageing fleet went up in smoke. At one stage, its fleet was too small for its army of employees because the corporation has historically remained as a dumping ground and “political rehabilitation centre.”. The corporation requires over Rs 8 crore a month for the salaries alone. The mismatch between the availability and the requirement is reflected by huge delays in dispensing salaries. Currently, the corporation has around 2000 employees and they get salaries a few times a year. “We receive salaries once in six months,” said, a driver, Muhammad Shafi.

‘New Purchases, Older Hands’

On December 15, 2021, the administration announced that 150-200 e-busses would be introduced in Jammu and Kashmir. In 2019, SRTC procured 40 electric buses from Tata Motors. The objective was to reduce the pollution levels and provide convenient transport to the public. The new fleet was supposed to help the transporter retrieve part of the market share that it willingly gave up in a cutthroat competition with the private sector. These buses were handed over to outsourced crew on a contractual basis. While handing over these buses to the players from the open market, the corporation avoided properly using around 300 consolidated employees working with it for almost 10 years.

The corporation owns over 900 buses and trucks and ferries around four million passengers and manages a cargo of around takes a load of around 380000 metric tons a year.

Recently 503 trucks and buses were added to the fleet. However the problem remains who would drive them away. “Our current lot of drivers also don’t know how to operate these sophisticated machines,” said an official.

Pertinently, the Chief Secretary, Jammu and Kashmir, Dr Arun Kumar Mehta, said that SRTC would see a new phase soon, asking the officials of the Transport department that the corporation is in profits by March 2022. Commenting on the loopholes of the corporation, the Chief Secretary said officials of the Transport Department have been directed to improve operational efficiencies in SRTC to enable it to post operational profits in the next three months.

“The Transport Department has to move towards complete end to end digitalization of all services being rendered on line and ensure introduction of e-office in all the subordinate offices,” the Chief Secretary said.

Mehta said that the department would ensure that the fleet of motorcycles purchased by the department is deployed on the National Highways for enforcing lane discipline amongst the commuters.

He said that the Electricity Vehicle Policy would be shortly notified and in order to encourage people to buy e-vehicle, 100% exemption from road tax has been allowed on purchase of the e-vehicles. The Chief Secretary said that there was a need to upgrade bus stands and each district headquarters should have a proper bus stand with all attendant public amenities for the welfare of people. Enhancing operational efficiencies in SRTC is the need of the hour. The department is in the process of instituting a robust monitoring system to constantly track the performance of the corporation vehicles for improved results.

Meanwhile, Managing Director, Angrez Singh Rana, while talking to Greater Kashmir, admitted that the Corporation was facing a deficit situation. He said that we are short of salaries for the employees which is a cause of concern. However, he said a lot of positive measures were undertaken to revamp the corporation from last over a year now.

“We have added 502 more machines to the fleet, which include 277 trucks, 226 buses, AC buses and other machines,” he said. He said that they had empanelled contractors who would provide drivers, conductors, cleaners etc. “Currently we have 200 drivers from these Contractors and we are still short of 200 more,” he said.

“Our aim is to provide adequate, efficient, socio economic and co-ordinated transport services to the commuters both within the state and outside the state,” “Our efforts will remain to make the public transport system advantageous and convenient to the public, tourism, trade and industry and various other agencies.”

He said that SRTC will continue providing an integrated transport system for carriage of essential commodities and key construction material to every nook and corner of Jammu and Kashmir.

It may be recalled that soon after India’s independence in 1947, the trucks and buses were owned by operators like ND. Radhakrishnan, allied Chirag Din & Sons and Nanda bus service got held up on the other side of the border with the result transport services and movement of essential commodities collapsed abruptly as the private transporters were reluctant to come forward for transportation of food grains and shifting of refugees which created crises like situation. In order to defuse the crisis as an alternative the government established government transport undertaking (GTU) on January 5, 1948 with a fleet of 50 trucks which were purchased from M/S General Motor Corporation, Bombay. The GTU was subsequently converted into a corporation (under section 3) of “the Road Transport Corporation Act -1950” on September, 1, 1976 and later every State adopted the model, including Jammu and Kashmir.

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