Once, Mahatma Gandhi said ‘movement’ is the sign of life. Public transport is the life rendering-nerve for economic development and social integration. It is essential for progress and will continue to be essential for mankind to move forward.

Road transport has emerged as the most dominant segment in the country’s overall transport sector, contributing approximately 3.5% to the GDP and accounting for 80% of passenger and 60% of goods transport. It generates employment for approximately 440 million people. Though availability and adaptability are the positive attributes of road transport, affordability to a vast majority of the population is the beauty of public transport in our country.

According to the Road Transport Year Book 2016-17, in India, the total number of registered motor vehicles (transport and non-transport) increased to 253 million in 2016-17 recording a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.11%. It is painful to note that the strength of buses is growing at a dismal CAGR of 3% (34,000) as on March 31, 1951, to 0.74% (18,64,000) as on March 31, 2017, in spite of Omnibuses being included in the fleet from 2001.

At present, about 18 lakh buses are plying on Indian roads, largely private-owned. Most private-owners have limited ownership of 1-10 vehicles. Only 1,50,000 vehicles belong to the 54 organised State Road Transport Undertakings (SRTUs). The density of buses is 1.5 buses per 1,000 population. Goods transport is mostly in the unorganised sector and has small fleet owners.

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Bus transport makes the most optimum use of the available road space and fossil fuel by transporting the maximum number of people per unit of road space and passenger km/litre. In terms of per passenger kilometre, it is estimated that on an average a car consumes nearly 6 times more energy than an average bus, while two-wheelers consume about 2.5 times and three-wheelers 4.7 times (Report of the Working Group on Road Transport for the 12th Five Year Plan). Public transport’s contribution is immense to the rural economy as well as it sets the multiplier effect in motion to a large extent by catering to the transport of passengers, their dairy, agro products and merchandise.

With rising income and greater need for mobility, personalised mode of transport is likely to assume more significance in the coming years. On the flip side, this proliferation will result in negative externalities on society in the form of traffic congestion, carbon emissions/pollution, inefficient use of fuel, scarce road space, etc.

The imposition of the lockdown has brought the road transport to a grinding halt, making most vehicles immobile throughout the country. Drivers, cleaners and support staff are facing a never felt deplorable situation of scarcity of food and money.

Passenger vehicles are kept idle and the crew are unemployed as most of them are in the unorganised sector, where the unwritten ‘no work, no pay’ principle applies automatically. The organised SRTUs, which are already facing perpetual losses mainly due to the imposition of ‘social faring system’, are now saddled with no earnings on the one hand and are reeling under the threat of continuation of ‘sectorial shutdown’ of services or possible subjection to constrained operations due to ‘physical distancing’.

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It is expected that there will be a spurt in personalised transport preference to maintain the newly-acquired habit of ‘physical distancing’ in view of the corona threat.

Revenues and Employment
India has a vehicle population of around 360 million and provides employment to 200 million drivers and an equal number of cleaners, 5 million conductors and another 10 million supporting artisans and other staff apart from providing indirect employment to 25 million people in manufacturing and distribution of automobiles.

According to some estimates, the Central government earns Rs 1.25 lakh crore through road and infrastructure tax on diesel and petrol, Rs 360 crore through toll and Rs 5 lakh crore through the road transport business. States exchequers add another Rs 100 crore in the form of vehicle and passenger taxes at current prices.

Though in the near term fuel may be available at present prices, it may become scarce as well as costly because countries across the world will tend to follow protectionism for their respective local resources and talent.

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This indicates that transport systems have to prioritise the use of their country’s resources for maximising productivity. This may lead to increase in spread over hours along with an increase in loads within permissible limits for goods, and at lower capacities for passenger services with increased hours of operations/trips, thereby reducing the per unit cost of service as the increase in fares may not be possible for at least a few years.

A sector with such a vital contributing potential to the country’s economy, employment generation, and the overall potential to uplift society, is reeling under acute financial pressure and is in need of inclusive considerations from its creators to face the corona crisis.

Governments survive on tax accruals, therefore seeking tax concessions may not be appropriate during this crisis. The industry requires and deserves a stimulus package in the form of capital infusion in SRTUs, in which the Central government holds one-third stake under the Road Transport Act, 1950.

The other option could be a onetime Covid-19 stimulus package of Rs 1,000 crore for each State on an average for renewing/modernisation of the fleet, which will also be useful for the automobile industry, body fabricators and the SRTUs. This will also perfectly dovetail with the Prime Minister’s ‘Make in India’ scheme. #KhabarLive #hydnews