Interview | KSRTC CMD invokes change mantra to survive beyond 2030

Biju Prabhakar

The Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC), reeling under a severe financial crisis, is dependent on the government for disbursing the salaries of its employees, and for meeting other expenses. The financially crippled corporation, however, cannot piggyback ride on government funds for long.

The existence of the public transport service provider is essential for society. It cannot continue without the backing and cooperation of its workforce, says Biju Prabhakar, the Transport Secretary and Chairman and Managing Director of the corporation.

In a freewheeling conversation, Prabhakar responds to the recommendations and opinions the members of the public have raised during a Malayala Manorama campaign aimed at driving KSRTC into a self-sustaining corporation.

KSRTC is finding it hard to distribute salaries to its employees. When will this crisis end?

This crisis will not end soon. The corporation has to find Rs 97.9 crore for disbursing the salaries and pensions. Rs 82 crore is required for disbursing salaries. The remaining goes to the provident fund and insurance. Fuel alone will cost Rs 88 crore a month. Salaries of employees and fuel expenses added up to Rs 180 crore in April. The corporation has to repay a bank loan of Rs 30 crore. The insurance premium of buses will, on average, come to Rs 3 crore. Besides, the corporation has to find Rs 7 crore for purchasing spare parts, and Rs 1.5 crore for paying tolls on the roads. Additionally, it has to deposit money based on the directives of the Motor Accident Claims Tribunal. The total expense will come to Rs 250 crore, and the revenue is Rs 164.71 crore. The corporation has to depend on the government due to this revenue deficit. As long as the revenue deficit continues, the crisis over the disbursement of salary, too, will continue. The only solution is to increase the revenue.

Is the corporation considering any initiatives to overcome the crisis?

If the current situation continues, KSRTC will not survive beyond 2030. Though already late, everyone should work together for the future of the corporation. It is better late than never. The corporation cannot always hope that the government will bail it out. The government provided aid of Rs 2037.51 crore in the financial year 2021-22. The corporation has received financial support of Rs 6,961.5 crore from the government since 2016.

Won't providing adequate service to the public make KSRTC profitable?

Yes, it will. Our efforts are now in that direction, and we are implementing the recommendations of the Prof Sushil Khanna committee report prepared after studying the crisis. As the first step, long-distance schedules have to be made effective. Employees should be deployed accordingly as well.

KSRTC SWIFT is part of the initiative to make long-distance schedules effective. Passengers will have clarity on bus schedules, and better buses in good condition will be used for long-distance travel. 

How do you plan the redeployment of employees?

The present duty system should be drastically changed. At many depots we don't have enough staff--if the driver is available, the conductor won't be present. We cannot operate at least 500 schedules daily due to the shortage of staff. This is mainly due to the skewed driver to conductor ratio, and employees' failing to turn up for duty on time. The double-duty pattern should be replaced with a single-duty model.

Will the employees support such a move?

The corporation should survive, and both the management and employees should be willing to compromise. According to the single-duty pattern, the corporation will provide additional payment for additional duty hours. The employee could earn an additional payment of up to Rs 17,270 each month based on this model. The current duty pattern is based on the Labour Act framed in 1961. There should be a change in accordance with the changing times. Refusing to change will sink the corporation. The employees should come forward to increase the revenue. 

It is alleged that operating SWIFT schedules on existing KSRTC routes is to destroy the corporation?

If there was such a motive, SWIFT could have been rolled out as a separate State Transport Undertaking (STU), having all the rights of KSRTC. Not a single schedule of KSRTC is now profitable due to the current duty pattern. The average revenue from a single schedule is Rs 16,000, and we need seven employees to operate one schedule. 

Their salary and diesel would add up to Rs 20,000, meaning, each schedule is incurring a loss of Rs 4,000. Hence we have appointed employees on a contract basis to operate SWIFT. They function as driver-cum-conductor. Only SWIFT is able to utilise the buses and employees productively. The duty hours of the SWIFT crew are different from the other KSRTC buses. When one set of crew rests after duty, another set of crew takes over the bus. A SWIFT bus is on the road for 22 hours a day. 

Why did you decide to purchase new buses while hundreds of vehicles in the yards have been awaiting repairs?

Of the superclass buses, 704 are more than seven years old, and 240 of them are nine years old. These buses will be converted to ordinary schedules this year. The super class buses have a limited seven years' service period. They cannot be used for more than seven years for long-distance service. If old buses are deployed in long-distance routes, they will break down midway.

Even as you talk about reforms, the city circular in Thiruvananthapuram city is making losses.

Even Delhi Metro was incurring losses initially. But today, getting a ticket in the Metro itself is a difficult task. The city circular, which had been catering to 4,000 passengers, created a record the other day as 25,387 passengers used the service. It will be profitable once we induct electric buses. 

The profitable chain services were withdrawn. The successful experiments initiated are seldom followed up by successive managements?

Fresh decisions will be based on the government's policy. Chain services have not been withdrawn, but their frequency has been reduced to 10-15 minutes from the earlier 5 minutes. It has been rescheduled based on demand. We will continue the successful models that have been initiated earlier.

There are criticisms over the move to diversify the business to tap non-ticket revenue?

KSRTC has never been profitable by operating bus schedules alone. We have landed property worth Rs 5,000 crore, and it could be used for commercial purposes. If we could garner a revenue of 10 per cent, it would come to Rs 500 crore. Our intention is to tap this revenue possibility. Revenue from non-ticketing sources was Rs 1.5 crore, which increased to Rs 8.5 crore in November, after the budget tourism plan was implemented. We have formed a marketing wing for this purpose.

KSRTC's previous BOT plans have gone awry?

Yes, we accept it. Shopping complexes were constructed with a marketing perspective. Major private construction firms will be employed on the Design, Build, Finance, Operate and Transfer (DBFOT) model. We have appointed advisors and a marketing team for this purpose.

Will these plans materialise if the management is at loggerheads with employees?

There is an on-going campaign that the management is some sort of a monster. Previously, it was believed that one should be influential enough to get something from the chief office. It has changed. Even applications received over WhatsApp are now processed. Medical reimbursement, which was Rs 25,000, has been hiked, and we have provided up to Rs 5 lakh. There is, however, a section of people trying to pit the employees against the management through their social media interventions. Making the corporation profitable and running it decently is a necessity of both the employees and management.

What is the KSRTC's rejuvenation package?  

The aim was to make a profit of Rs 35 crore by saving on fuel. This target could be met by rolling out more LNG, CNG and electric vehicles. We also aimed at raising a profit of Rs 25 crore through computerisation, and by redeploying the staff, and an additional Rs 25 crore through non-ticketing revenues, thereby narrowing the revenue deficit. This decision was made when LNG cost Rs 43, and CNG, Rs 54.50. But the costs have now increased to Rs 110 and Rs 83, respectively. Hence we are now considering buying more electric buses. The utilisation of KSRTC buses was 85 per cent in 2017, which now dipped to 72 per cent. Our plan is to raise the utilisation to 95 per cent by increasing the effectiveness of the employees.

What is the impediment to computerisation?

There was a time when even the deceased employee was transferred! Such a situation changed once we migrated to SPARK (Service and Payroll Administrative Repository of Kerala, an integrated system for all government employees). The National Informatics Centre has been assigned to implement the e-office. A software will be introduced that could assign employees to conduct schedules. The efficacy will increase once computerisation is completed. GPS will be used to track buses. The traffic will be planned according to the information thus gathered. The move to introduce travel cards is in its final phase. 

The world is increasingly opting for electric vehicles. Why is the KSRTC opting for CNG-powered buses?

Electronic buses are better but expensive. We will have to shell out 40 to 45 per cent of the vehicle's cost to replace the battery after seven years. The electric bus, which will be introduced soon, costs Rs 92.5 lakh, whereas a diesel bus could be bought for Rs 33 lakh. We are interested in purchasing diesel buses. Green funding is the only option before us. KSRTC will need, for the time being, at least 1,500-2,000 electric buses to keep running. We have initiated talks with financial institutions such as the World Bank and ADB. We are trying to get an electric bus for Rs 80 lakh. Simultaneously, we plan to buy an additional 700 CNG buses, which could be fuelled from the State-run biogas plants.

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