Kerala’s great KSRTC saga continues unabated. For the past three decades, the beloved people’s transportation corporation has been lurching from crisis to crisis, mostly of the financial nature, facing problems in everything from over staffing to buying diesel and spare parts to paying pensions and salaries. The present problem relates to pensions. There are thousands of KSRTC retirees who are fully dependent on their pensions. And now, as pensions aren’t being paid for months together, many of them have started committing suicide! At first, it might seem to be the outrageous outcome of the cruel inefficiency of a state-run behemoth, but when you look deeper, you can realise that the question is not that. Instead, why should the corporation pay salaries anyway?
The Story of KSRTC in Short
Started in 1938 as the Travancore State Transportation Department by then Maharaja of the Kingdom of Travancore, HH Sri Chithira Tirunal Balarama Varma, the company was nationalised and renamed the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation in 1956. The corporation grew into one of the best transport corporations in the country, exemplary in services and schedules. KSRTC turned out a profit almost every year until the early 1980s, when ruinous populism and senseless indulgence for political gains finally caught up with it. And no, it was not the Communists who were the culprits here. In 1984, the then Congress government under chief minister K.Karunakaran and transport minister N.Sakthan Nadar passed a bill elevating KSRTC staff to the level of full government employees with full pension and benefits. The corporation never recovered.
Until then, KSRTC employees didn’t have pensions. Even today, it is the only STU (State Transport Unit) in the country whose employees are covered by pensions. No, no other SRTCs (the bigger K, TN, AP, T, Kadamba, O, M, UP, GJ, WB etc etc) pay pensions for their staff. The bill had a clause mentioning that the government would not bear the responsibility of pensions, which the corporation had to pay out of its earnings. This one line would seal KSRTC’s fate. Losses started small and aided by political meddling, over-hiring, apathetic staff and chronic mismanagement kept mounting and have now reached all but ridiculous levels. Salaries and pensions together make up 40% of its expenses! Anybody with a bit of common sense will realise how stupid this is, because the transportation business does not work that way. Pensioners will keep on increasing but revenues will not. The state’s welfarist ambitions will only end up killing its public transportation system.
KSRTC’s daily finances: On a daily basis KSRTC earns around 6 crores in revenues from collections, advertisements, rent etc. However, it spends double of that. Four crores go towards operational expenses: 3 crores on fuel and one crore on operations, maintenance etc. Pensions and salaries make up 5 crores (3 crores on salaries and 2 crores on pensions), and loan repayments take up another 3 crores. Daily expenses hence total to 12 crores.
Even if all of its buses run at full capacity for all its trips KSRTC will never break even as long as it has to pay pensions. Pensions money gives no returns, and that part of the pie which will only keep increasing, while revenue growth might not keep pace. And now, the state government has refused to take over the corporation’s pension payments. How can it sustain in this way? How long will they keep throwing money into this pit? Yes, I am a huge KSRTC fan and a die-hard votary of public transport, but in its present form, KSRTC is terribly hurting the chances for growth of sustainable public transport in the state as it is unable to scale and improve.
The Discriminatory Pensioning System
The more pertinent question here is, why this pension at all? The idea of a pension is to provide people past a working certain age with a monthly stipend so they can live out their twilight years independently and with dignity. It is also an acknowledgement of the years of hard work they put in. However, the problem is that this is not universal. In the current setup, only a very small section of society, a privileged group of ex-government employees are entitled to a pension. Everyone else, employees and employers in the private sector have no pensions or even a concept of a retirement age. Many continue to work until their bodies give up. All of their survival and mobility depends solely on their luck and work. If they fail, they will have nothing. One can hardly sympathise with the travails of those who were blessed with assured and guaranteed salaries, job security, promotions and pensions, and led a comfortable life doing close to nothing, and are now whining after pissing it all away in the end, when there are people who worked their fingers to the bone their entire life and still have nothing, whose suffering far outstrips those of erstwhile privileged ones, but are voiceless to even raise a cry about it. What about them? Are their travails any less newsworthy?
A KSRTC bus driver has rock-solid employee rights, gets salaries and benefits according to multiple duty schemes, the union can arm twist the government into accepting various demands, and he can treat passengers like shit or worse and have no action taken against him. He will have a guaranteed job until he retires, from where he give receive monthly pensions until he dies. If this happens on the job, his spouse or children will get employment. At the same time, a private bus driver gets no employee rights or benefits, has to accept whatever his boss (bus owner) pays him and can get fired any time. And if he dies on the job, his wife and children will be destitute. Why does the former get a pension and not the latter? Both drive buses! One argument is that the former has to crack a notoriously difficult and competitive PSC examination to get the job. The real question here is, my is a PSC examination required to drive a bus? Isn’t a driving license and associated training enough? Or, are people actually being paid to be privileged because they could crack a public services examination?
This discriminatory pension system is one of the greatest social injustices of our times. How different is this from the richest one percent getting richer? Don’t those who couldn’t crack the PSC test deserve to live? The government collects taxes from everyone, but pays out pensions to only its own employees! Either do away with pensions altogether or make it universal for everyone irrespective of who their employer is. If pensions are done away with, the government can actually spend more on social welfare schemes to benefit society as a whole. The thing is that governments cannot be trusted. State government pensions are not a fundamental right or anything, and they can just change the laws if they want to, just like how the government has done now.
The Legacy of “Official” KSRTC Employees”
On another side note, the institution of KSRTC employees as full government officials had repercussions in more ways than one. It gave them the license of arrogance and audacity. They started considering themselves to be just like any other government official, self-serving and answerable only to themselves and their cliques, with zero accountability to the public, the mentality which during the period from the late 1980s to the late 1990s started reflecting the organisation’s operations. From being one of the country’s sterling transportation agencies, KSRTC fell to a running synonym for bad service, misery, misgovernance and arrogance. Drivers and conductors thought themselves to be “sarkari babus” whose desks were the buses, and their jobs to shoo away as many people as possible. Many deliberately made people to suffer, to stamp their superiority upon them and to keep their petty egos bloated. Empty buses would regularly speed past desperately crowded bus stops, crews wouldn’t put up destination boards until the last minute, conductors would ruthlessly abuse passengers, trips were abandoned and people left stranded for the silliest of reasons (tyre puncture) etc.
A generation had cursed KSRTC and its employees for all that they were made to endure at their hands. There are actually quite a few who maintain that the present travails of KSRTC pensioners are “karma” for their misdeeds. Well, this wouldn’t be very farfetched, because those employees are as culpable as the management and politicians in destroying this organisation. Yes, collective responsibility. It is no surprise that most of Kerala’s public have no sympathy towards the suffering of the pensioners. However, this has to be resolved.
Stories of KSRTC employee arrogance are not exaggerated. I have head personally stories of people waiting for hours throughout the night at bus stops and stations. There would either be no buses, buses would stop outside the depot or away from the bus stop and speed away. Conductors would even refuse to exceed the seating capacity of the bus. I remember once when I was little, we waiting in the pre-dawn cold for more than an hour, watching empty buses speeding past one after the other, unheeding of our desperate signalling, some drivers even laughing as they sped past. Finally a private bus had to arrive (after daybreak) to take us to the nearest big town from where we could board a bus. There are thousands of such stories, mainly of people running behind buses. The conditions those days is beautifully visualised in this movie clip.
Of course, none of this is true anymore. Most employees today are exemplary helpful and nice, some even personally going the extra mile to make passengers feel at home. Most drivers stop for passengers even at places they don’t even have to. Recently on the JN404 Volvo from Kottayam to Ernakulam the conductor was apologising to me saying he didn’t have change! A couple of weeks ago, I saw a Superfast crew helping with passenger luggage. Long distance crews of Volvos and Scanias are especially friendly. Nobody really knows when they changed for the better, but I haven’t seen a rude crew in a long time.
As for saving KSRTC, there is no real way out, except brutal measures and steps taken to cut expenses and increase revenues. Here are some suggestions which were mentioned in previous chapters here and here.
- The government must take over the pension. It was the government that carries social responsibility, and not KSRTC. It makes no sense for a public transport organisation to pay crores in pension to ex-employees every month. Its objective is to provide efficient, comfortable and reliable transportation services and not to be a social service organisation. In its current setup, the passengers, the state and the general environment is suffering. As long as it keeps paying pensions, there is no way anything can improve.
- Get out of the blood-sucking ordinary business. Open up all routes below 72 km service distance to private operators.Let only KURTC compete with them running city, short-distance and moffussil services.
- Increase administrative efficiency, roll out more modern, air-conditioned rear-engined buses and more interstate services.
- Make the corporation a wholly government-owned company and function as such.
- Stop political interference in KSRTC. Give honest officers like Rajamanikyam IAS a free hand to run the organisation along with other transportation professionals.
- Identify, punish and weed out agents working within the organisation against its interests.
- Terminate absentee employees like the railways just did. I know people who took leave from KSRTC and are driving buses for Dubai RTC. They earn in Dirhams there and will return to draw pension!
- Digitise everything. Administration, management, collection, records, make online reservations available for all buses and all corporations through one single portal. Enable GPS tracking on all buses. Introduce rechargeable smart cards and daily passes.
- End all kinds of concessions except maybe the 50% for students on Ordinary buses only
- Waive off state taxes on diesel for KSRTC.
Today, on the 80th birthday of KSRTC, here’s wishing to the evergreen people’s state carrier a healthy and long life ahead, taking its passengers on long-winding journeys for many more years to come! Happy Birthday, KSRTC! :)