(Note: This is Onmanorama's special project that tracks the impact of lockdown on people from different strata of Kerala society. Read all the nine stories here.)
Chenthara Ismail's 20-year-long career as a bus operator in Kerala's Kochi came to an end in the first week of September. He had to sell off his only bus that plied between Aluva and Thevara as the pandemic and the resultant lockdown made it impossible to manage the services without losses. Before March 2020, someone had offered Rs 18.5 lakh for the bus. But he did not sell it. How much did he get when he sold it off recently? “I simply sold it off for whatever little money they offered,” the 61-year-old living in Aluva in Ernakulam district told Onmanorama. He was embarrassed to mention the amount.
Like Ismail, many bus owners in Kerala got rid of their prized possessions because of the lockdown. “Even big players who owned several buses have sold some of them,” he said.
Ismail is not a traditionally rich bus operator. He is a driver by profession. He drove many vehicles for 35 years before buying a bus in 2010.
“I bought the bus at the insistence of my elder son, who is also a driver. Eight years later, in 2018, we sold it and bought another bus. But in less than two years, Covid came and everything changed,” Ismail said.
Once the government allowed bus services post lockdown, Ismail, like many in the sector, was not in a position to keep his employees. “My two sons worked as the driver and conductor then. Even then the daily collection was so low that it didn't even cover the operational expenses. On two occasions, the services were affected midway as there was not enough fuel,” Ismail said.
Ismail also blames the soaring diesel prices for his ill-fate. “Before the lockdown, we managed four services a day with diesel worth Rs 4,250. Now I have to spend Rs 6,300 for the same amount of diesel. It is a huge burden. We can survive only if the diesel price comes down. Before last year’s lockdown, the owner of a bus plying in Kochi city used to earn a minimum profit of Rs 3,000 a day. It has come down to less than Rs 1,000 now,” he said.
“Ever since the lockdown I have not been able to repay my bank loans and the interest keeps mounting,” Ismail said.
According to Ismail, one needs at least Rs 2,38,000 a year to operate a bus. The split goes like this – Rs 65,000-75,000 for insurance, Rs 40,000 for fitness test and Rs 1,28,000 (32,000 per quarter) as taxes. The loan amount, if any, comes in addition to this.
The Kerala government had exempted bus operators from paying taxes from April 2020 to June 2021, barring one quarter in which they had to pay 50 per cent of the tax amount.
Ismail is of the view that the changes in people’s travel patterns also added to his woes. “Many small shops along MG Road have shut shops in the past few years. Cinema halls remain closed for two years. Number of people visiting the city has also been reduced. The Kochi Metro has brought down the number of bus commuters. Another reason for the fall in bus users is that many migrant labourers have started using bicycles following the lockdown,” he said.
Ismail said he would not dare to buy a bus again, at least as long as the diesel prices remain so high. He says the government should help bus owners financially to convert their vehicles into compressed natural gas (CNG) mode. “It would cost around Rs 4.25 lakh for a bus,” he said.
“I have not gone to the Aluva bus stand after I sold my bus. I don't want to look like a failed entrepreneur,” he said.