Private bus operations in India

Buses are an integral part of the transportation scene in India. With the rapid expansion of India's highway network, long distance travel moved to the roadways. The advent of premium rear engine luxury coaches in 2002, more passengers moved to the roads, and buses became popular among the masses. Bus transportation industry in the country can be broadly divided into two types - Stage Carriages and Contract Carriages/AIP Buses.

Stage Carriages are vehicles that operate between points picking up passengers on the way and issuing tickets to them. These buses operate on 'stage carriage' permits issued by the government to operate on specified. They are permitted to pick-up passengers from notified bus stops, collect fares for the distance they travel (not exactly the distance they travel, but for 'stages' they travel) and issue tickets for the same. These type of buses charge fares based on the number of 'stages' they travel - a stage is a prefixed distance (2.5kms in Kerala, 6kms in Maharashtra, as so on). You are charged the fare from the 'stage stop' where you board from, till the 'stage stop' that comes after your bus stop (unless you board/alight from a stage stop) - you need to pay a minimum fare irrespective of stages. There are two types of Stage carriages in India - those operated by state governments/local government undertakings (these buses are 'protected' under the RTC Act) and those operated by private operators. Of late, there is a third category of buses that are operated by private operators but on a franchise to the local government transport body (like in Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh or Assam).

Contract Carriages/AIP buses - these are vehicles operated on the basis of a 'Contract Carriage' Permit or an 'All India Tourist Omni Bus' Permit. While these permits are technically not issued to operate on routes, on a regular basis. However, the nuances of definitions in the Motor Vehicles Act, and its interpretations by different bodies leave large loop holes, which are often exploited to operate buses on routes. The Contract Carriage (CC) permit is basically issued for buses to be operated to carry passengers on the basis of a "contract" - this could be to ferry a group of people for a common motive (like marriage parties, or people traveling for a common program). There is a sub-type to this permit that is called a 'Private Service Vehicle', where the vehicle is used to ferry employees to their place of work and back to their residences - this permit is used for 'staff vehicles'. All India Tourist Omni Bus (AITOB) Permit (or simply called 'AIP') are buses that are used to carry tourists - these permits are specifically to take tourists around, and the passengers must be on a round trip. There are regulations regarding their colouring, facilities and even age - I would skip the technicalities at this juncture.

CC Permits are generally valid only for the state which issued the permit - they need to obtain special permits to enter other states, and pay appropriate taxes/fee for entry. AIP buses are permitted to operate to multiple states (that are mentioned on the permit), for which they pay taxes every time they enter a state other than the 'home' state. These two permits are commonly exploited to operate regular trips on interstate routes. While the operations could be construed as illegal prima facie, there are several loop holes in all these rules which have been used to operate regular services. There are several court judgements that have been used to legalize these operations. All the buses pay appropriate taxes for each group they operate to - so the enter the states legally.

Coming to the crux of the issue, there was, recently, a mishap in a reputed private operator's bus in Kerala - two passengers in the bus were manhandled by the operator's employees (there, allegedly, was a brawl between the said passengers and the crew after the bus they were traveling in broke down, and there was a delay in arranging a spare bus). The entire manhandling episode was captured by another passenger in the bus and was shared over social media - which blew up into a major controversy. The media took up the issue, and forced the state government to act. The loopholes in the law does not permit the state government to ban these service, nor does the state transport undertakings have the muscle to replace all these services.

These recent issues have caused major protests from political outfits, and has, rightly, caused passenger anger as well. While the entire issue of the operator staff manhandling passengers (whatever be the reasons) cannot be justified, the anger towards these operators cannot be justified either. Private operators are part of the travel industry, and everybody who travels long distance might have used their services atleast once in their life. The private 'Contract Carriage' industry is largely unorganized and unregulated - due to the grey areas in the relevant rules. The fares or routes are not regulated, allowing the operators to fix their routes and fares based on their own logic. Some states like Tamil Nadu have their own system of regulating these operations, and provide facilities like dedicated bus stations as well.

Issues raised by passengers about these operations:
1. Unregulated fares: The fares vary by demand - they give deep discounts on weekdays, and charge hefty rates on weekends. The fares skyrocket during peak seasons, often reaching twice or thrice the normal fare.
2. Lack of proper pick-up points: Pick-ups often happen on the road side, or from agent offices - small dingy places without proper waiting space or restrooms - there are exceptions to this, and there are operators who have established their own lounges and own boarding facilities with adequate amenities for the passengers.
3. Misbehaviour from crew: This is lower with private operators, in my experience. I've had worse misbehaviours from STU crews, but have had my share of bad experiences with private operators too.
4. Change of dropping point: I've experienced this. The crew refuse to travel into the city, often terminating their services earlier than the scheduled terminating point. I've also experienced crew refusing to enter cities and forcing people to deboard at bypasses itself. This is a grey area.
5. Poor quality buses: STUs often lead on this, but the private operators are not behind on this. Fly-by-night operators running poorly maintained pre-worshipped buses are common. These operators often operate only during weekends, charging hefty sums of money.
6.Unnecessary halts to load/unload luggage: Carrying cargo is illegal going by the law. This is again a grey area. Quite a lot of operators focus on carrying cargo to make up their operating expenditure - the focus often becomes cargo first. This has been a big nuisance for passengers.

Is that all?

These buses quite often have excellent timings, lesser running time, amenities like entertainment systems, snacks, etc, and even things like live bus tracking among others. The discounted fares are enjoyed by most passengers, while the peak day fares are frowned upon.

If discounted fares were not enough, quite a lot of operators went further and introduced newer amenities for passengers - like snack boxes and personalized entertainment. Water bottles are often a norm already, and there are buses that offer an on-board restroom as well (a norm in the west)! Snack boxes are good - but are they necessary? The bus would anyways have to stop for a break - the snack box added to the cost of operation, which is then recovered from passengers by charging hefty fares during peak seasons.

The way forward:

1. Stable fares: While discounts are great, high fares aren't. Operators need to fix minimum and maximum fares. A stable minimum fare would help the operators ensure their operating costs are met, while a smaller premium during weekends and/or peak days
2. Crew behaviour: Crew need to undergo soft skill trainings - both STUs and private operators. Kind behaviour to passengers is a necessity. Transportation should be similar to the hospitality industry.
3. Standardisation of operations: Operators must stick to their prefixed pick-up and drop points, and must adhere to the core.
4. Luggage: No. Leave that to trucks. Keep your fares sufficient to meet your costs, without having to look at supplemental revenues from luggage.
5. Bus quality: Keep them great. Maintain them properly. Keep them clean and reliable.
6. Operators and their associations should come together to set up bus stations - clean boarding areas with basic amenities like clean toilets (let them be pay-per-use).

To the government:
These operations are essential. Detailed regulations to regulate them, and legalize is essential. Bring in safety requirements and ensure they are adhered to.

[Avoiding putting any photographs in the best interest of all the concerned parties]

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