The financial crisis in Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) has come to a head. Wages are paid in instalments. Employees fear more austerity. Creation of the new entity KSRTC-Swift has further aroused suspicion. Staffers now oppose duty reforms.
Chairman and managing director Biju Prabhakar wants to ‘step down’. After chief secretary intervened, Prabhakar made a series of Facebook lives, to call for reforms.
Why wages are delayed
Even when the going is good, KSRTC will end up with a huge deficit.
In December 2022’s Sabarimala rush, total revenue for the month was Rs 243.35 crore, a post-covid record. But expenditure, excluding salary and pension, swelled to Rs 272.59 crore, a shortfall of nearly Rs 30 crore.
On top of this, the Corporation had to find Rs 93.10 crore to pay salaries that month. (Pension commitments of nearly Rs 75 crore are met by a loan from the cooperative bank at 8.5 per cent interest.)
So, even in a month the KSRTC did well, it had to find an additional Rs 123 crore (the shortfall of Rs 30 crore plus the salary commitment of Rs 93.10 crore) to stay afloat. In March this year, KSRTC had to find nearly Rs 160 crore to meet its salary and other requirements.
A portion of this additional requirement was supposed to be covered by the government. In September 2022, the government had agreed to transfer Rs 50 crore monthly to KSRTC.
In the last three months, this was not done.
What constitutes major expenditure
Average monthly KSRTC expenditure during the 2022-23 fiscal was Rs 216.39 crore: majorly for fuel, salaries and loan repayment.
Fuel bill averages at Rs 94.05 crore a month comprising 30.38% of expenditure. Salaries require Rs 93.16 crore at 30.09%. To pay off debt, KSRTC shells out Rs 69.59 crore at 22.48% of monthly spends.
Why KSRTC-Swift was formed
There were four reasons why a new and independent entity had to be created.
One, KSRTC is too debt-ridden for banks to sanction loans. Already, consortium of banks has financed Rs 3,200 crore; Rs 1 crore is deducted daily (Rs 30 crore a month) from KSRTC as part of the repayment. Then of course there is the monthly interest of Rs 50 crore for older loans.
Once KSRTC-Swift was formed, Kerala Infrastructure Fund Board (KIIFB) came forward with a Rs 750-crore loan for purchasing buses. Now, KSRTC-Swift has 297 buses in operation; from AC sleeper and superfast buses to electric buses.
Two, KSRTC empanelled employees who had lost their jobs could be absorbed only in a company that is independent of KSRTC.
Various court verdicts, pronounced on the basis of cases filed by PSC rank holders, have prohibited KSRTC and its subsidiaries from recruiting empanelled or contract employees. Their re-employment was a promise in the LDF manifesto.
Three, it will be easier to improve fleet utilisation in a new company than in a highly unionised KSRTC.
Four, recruiting new workers with the existing government-level pay scale is no longer possible in KSRTC. KSRTC-Swift recruits are offered just 40 per cent of what their counterparts earn in KSRTC. Shrinking the salary chest is the primary focus.
Unions vs KSRTC-Swift
The unions worry KSRTC-Swift may be privatised in future. They fear KSRTC-Swift will swallow KSRTC. They point out that all the long-distance lucrative routes are with KSRTC-Swift.
“What if the management asks KSRTC staffers to go on deputation to Swift. We in KSRTC had passed the PSC test for company/corporation posts. If we are sent to Swift, we will be deprived of the various benefits government jobs hold,” a union leader said.
The INTUC and Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) moved the court against Swift.
Will KSRTC-Swift replace KSRTC?
Looks unlikely. Though an independent entity KSRTC-Swift is functionally dependent on KSRTC. Swift runs with KSRTC permits; it does not have a single permit. The revenue generated by Swift after operational costs and KIIFB loan repayment will be transferred to KSRTC coffers.
Swift will pay KSRTC for the use of its routes and also for the utilisation of other services: depots, workshops, cash counters and so on.
Has Swift cut costs, improved efficiency?
Official figures for the first three months this year say so. In January, the fuel cost per km of a standard KSRTC bus was Rs 34.47. For Swift, it was Rs 3.79. In February, Rs 34.84 and Rs 3.99 and in March, Rs 34.90 and Rs 4.23 respectively.
In crew costs Swift scored. In January, it was Rs 32.55 a km for KSRTC bus and Rs 16.43 for Swift. In February, Rs 32.61 and Rs 16.43 and in March, Rs 32.58 and Rs 16.81 respectively.
There was gain in maintenance costs. In January it was Rs 4 per km for KSRTC, and Rs 1.20 for Swift. In February and March, the figures repeated.
Comparative total cost per km in January was Rs 71.02 for KSRTC buses. For swift, it was Rs 21.43. In February, it was Rs 71.45 and Rs 21.62 and in March, Rs 71.48 and Rs 22.25 respectively.
Why KSRTC wants to scrap multiple duties
By opting for two or three duty schedules at a stretch, a conductor/driver can limit their working days in a week to two or three days. Though it grants three or four days of rest, it is hard toil. Overworked drivers can cause accidents too. It is also a violation of Section 13 of the Kerala Motor Transport Workers’ (KMTW) Act, 1961, which prohibits workers from functioning more than eight hours a day.
Such a system that allows workers to club their work hours together rather than spreading it out will lead to severe shortage of staff on several days in a week. A single duty system will have employees available for work six days a week.
The Sushil Khanna panel, tasked to come up with a turnaround strategy for KSRTC, had said in its 2017 report that multiple duties had led to ‘irrational scheduling and unprofitable trips’.
Why insist on spread-over duty?
KSRTC management has insisted on a 12-hour spread-over duty for employees once in a week. Employees are livid.
Spread-over duty, unlike the usual continuous duty, is spread over two sessions in a day with a long rest period in between. This is applicable for drivers and conductors doing service in a specific area, especially those ferrying office goers to and from work places. More than 70% of the KSRTC workforce come under this category.
On office days, there will be a morning peak, from 7 am to 10.30 am. Then an evening peak, mostly from 4.30 pm to 8 pm. Maximum number of buses are pressed into service during these two peak sessions.
The interval is rest period for crew. Usually: both these sessions are manned by two sets of workers. Now KSRTC wants one set of workers — driver and conductor — to man a bus in both the sessions.
This will free workers to operate buses that are lying idle; CMD Biju Prabhakar said that 1,180 buses in the KSRTC fleet remain idle. In September 2019, the latest period for which figures are available, KSRTC had 5,662 buses in its fleet.
Can KSRTC impose 12-hr duty?
The KMTW Act empowers KSRTC to insist on spread-over duty. Section 16 of the Act only says that spread-over duty should not be more than 12 hours a day; eight hours in the bus and four hours rest. The corporation is not obliged to pay overtime wages to workers for the ‘idle’ in-between hours.
Unions oppose spread-over duty
Unions know KSRTC management has law on its side. But they fear spread-over duty could be extended in future. “If we allow this for one day a week, the management will impose this for six days a week in future,” a senior union leader said.
When spread-over duty was first insisted upon early in 2022, it was for six days a week. It required the mediation of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, during a meeting on September 5, 2022, to cut it to once a week.