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What Transport Unions Should Really Have Been Striking About

Corruption in postings, transfers, leave and inhuman work culture are the norm within the Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation

Ram Kumar (name changed to protect identity), 50, is a bus driver in Chennai, an employee with the Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) since 2002. Kumar is a senior as far as bus drivers go and has chronic backache and other ailments. In the department, seniority is rewarded with ‘easier’ routes, such as KK Nagar to Mint. These routes are relatively traffic-free and older bus drivers are assigned these routes so as to reduce the burden on them.

“Casual drivers and those junior to me are instead assigned the ‘easier’ routes, despite me having the seniority,” said Kumar to The Lede. “Officers who allocate these routes take money and cheat me of my seniority benefits,” he added. He adds that it is the ruling party’s union members who get the ‘easier’ routes.

When Kumar raised these queries before the authorities, he was issued a memo, stating that he was late to work and that the mileage his bus recorded was too low. Being issued a memo means increments and seniority are pushed back by a year.

Kumar speaks of enormous and deep corruption within the transport department. “We are entitled to monthly casual or sick leave. If we apply for this, we have to pay Rs 100 per day of leave to the Supervisor. If we don’t, then they mark us as ‘absent’ and we are on ‘loss of pay’,” he said.

If workers accumulate the leave due to them and take it at a month-long stretch, Kumar says, the fee for the Supervisor’s approval is Rs 10,000. This is a big stretch for Kumar who earns around Rs 25,000 a month, inclusive of all benefits.

Apart from these issues, drivers, he says, have no proper space in the depot to take rest in the midst of a hectic schedule. “There is space only for 50 people. Around 100-120 of us share that. The rest sleep inside the bus itself,” he said.

Maintenance Blues

Most government buses are poorly maintained. In an affidavit filed before the Madras High Court in November 2017, the state Transport Department itself has submitted that, as on September 30, 2017, on average, 68.39% of its buses are ‘over-aged’ but still on the roads. Out of 3843 MTC buses, 2960 are being used beyond their desired lifespan. This is a huge 77%.

“It is not an easy task to drive a government bus,” continued Kumar. “In Chennai’s heat and humidity, when the buses are badly maintained, it is very tough.”

“As per Section 37 (xii) of the Motor Vehicle Act, 1989, it is illegal to run poorly maintained buses as it is a danger to the public,” said V Thalapathy, a bus conductor who moved the Madras High Court in 2016 on behalf of a number of such colleagues. He is also the president of the Netaji Transport Employees’ Union.

The relevant section states – “(The driver of a bus while on duty) shall at all times, exercise all reasonable care and diligence to maintain his vehicle in a fit and proper condition and shall not knowingly drive the vehicle when it or any brake, tyre or lamp thereof, is in a defective condition likely to endanger any passenger or other person or when there is not sufficient fuel in the tank of the vehicle to enable him to reach the next fuel filling station on the route.”

“The manufacturers of the bus themselves guarantee a mileage of 2.7 kilometres per litre of diesel,” he continued. “But officers are forcing us to achieve 6 kilometres per litre. We have to carry the bus on our heads in order to achieve this target,” he said. On average, they are able to achieve a mileage of 5.5 km per litre, he claims.

“There is corruption right from buying spares to cleaning the vehicles,” he continued. “A sum of Rs 12 per day is charged by the transport workers towards cleaning the bus. But the buses are not cleaned daily.” This amounts to Rs 12 for each of the 3843 buses in the city – a sum of Rs 46,116 per day, pocketed by transport supervisors in the city alone. For the entire state – 22,200 buses – a sum of Rs 2,66,400 per day is pocketed.

“If there is so much corruption in this cleaning process itself, imagine the amount pocketed by mechanics in terms of spares and maintenance of the engines etc,” said Thalapathy. “The supervisors and officers indulge in corruption, and then the blame falls on the driver when there is a bus breakdown or an accident,” he said.

M Shanmugam, General Secretary, Labour Progressive Front (LPF), a union affiliated to the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), says that the ruling party affiliated Anna Trade Union has over 20,000 members and is the largest union at present. “Members of this union usually sign their attendance and then leave without working. The department then makes the rest of us work overtime without extra pay,” he alleged. “As per the rules, a driver can work only for 8 hours a day and can drive only for 120 kilometres a day. But drivers are being forced to drive for 16 hours a day and around 500 kilometres on average. This is the main reason for accidents taking place,” he said.

“There is a scam in everything from the bus body building to the tyres,” he continued. “For instance, every transport corporation in the state has its own bus building yard. But buses are never built there. It is outsourced to private bus builders on a commission basis,” he claimed.

“Whether it is bus body building or drivers affiliated to ruling party unions not working, it happens whichever government is in power. That is why the Minister handling transport in any government will be from either Trichy or Karur districts, because private bus body builders are predominantly in these two areas,” he said. In the previous DMK regime between 2006 and 2011, the Transport Minister was KN Nehru who hails from Trichy. In the last two AIADMK regimes, both Transport Ministers Senthil Balaji and MR Vijaya Bhaskar hail from Karur district.

“There are a large number of cases that come to us on labour rights violations of transport department workers,” said D Nagasaila, senior advocate based in Chennai. “Even if they get judgements favourable to them, their higher ups ensure they do not get their due. A thorough audit needs to be done on the finances of the Transport Department as there are many scams that will then come to light,” she told The Lede.

When contacted about this list of issues, Transport Minister MR Vijaya Bhaskar told The Lede – “We have just now managed to get the buses back on the roads after the transport strike. Please don’t start a new issue. We are focusing on Pongal bus operations now.”

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