The dwindling prospects of the public-transport bus sector in Kerala, owing chiefly to high fuel prices and the pandemic, has resulted in bus operators preferring smaller buses having capacity of up to 35 seats that are more fuel-efficient than their 45-seat counterparts, which were once high in demand.
It is feared that this will in turn further lessen the scope of stage-carriage buses whose number has already fallen from 35,000 about two decades ago to around 12,000. Stakeholders say the steep fall in the number of buses and the marked preference for smaller ones could spell doom for the sector, unless the government stepped in with remedial measures.
It was reported in mid-2021 that Kottayam-based Kondody Motors, which is among the select firms across the country capable of manufacturing bus bodies that adhere to AIS 052 (the new bus body code specified by the Centre) standards, received a total of 15 orders in the 2020-21 fiscal, in stark contrast to 400 in 2019-20 and around 500 in 2018-19.
“We received another 15 orders during the past couple of months. They are mostly for four-cylinder buses that have 30, 32 and 35 seats. Bus operators prefer such buses now since they cost up to ₹27 lakh per bus, unlike 45-seaters that are priced about ₹35 lakh,” said Rahul Tom, MD of the firm.
The key reasons for the state of affairs are massive increase in fuel price, steel and other materials, the prices of which increased by up to 40% in the past year. This and the BS VI emission norms, which have come into effect, have resulted in the cost of each bus increasing by over ₹5 lakh in the past couple of years. It could take another six months or so for the situation to improve, said Mr. Tom.
Tourist buses hit
The fall in demand for buses has reflected in the tourist-bus sector too. “Faced with a lull in demand for travel following the pandemic, tourist bus operators now prefer to purchase used buses to new ones,” said Biju Markose, MD of Kothamangalam-based Ojes Automobiles, which builds tourist buses (contract carriages), ambulances, caravans and OB vans. Even among tourist buses, the demand is more for 35-seater ones, he pointed out.
A senior Motor Vehicle department (MVD) official attributed the falling demand for buses to increasing operational costs and an “unscientific” tax structure (GST, excise duty and road tax).
He said the State must urgently announce a Public Transport Policy, for which survey and other parameters have already been carried out. Or else, more private vehicles would pour into the State’s narrow roads and highways, worsening congestion, pollution and increasing accidents.
The government, which proclaims that it is in a position to raise funds for the ₹64,000-cr SilverLine rail project, ought to first rescue the existing public-transport sector from sinking, he added.