Jacob D’Souza, 63, a resident of Matunga and a school bus operator for schools in Mumbai, once owned four buses and operated independent bus services in five neighbourhood schools in and around Sion Koliwada. Two years into the lockdown, he is left with just one bus and struggles to make ends meet with that.
Within a year of the lockdown, financiers seized two of his buses for defaulting on loan repayment. “My buses were confiscated despite my sound credit record of paying all my dues on time,” said Jacob. “They didn’t care that I had no income due to the sudden closing of schools”.
Parked on the roadside, his buses also attracted fines for illegal parking. “The traffic police were so heartless that once they fined me Rs 1500 a day for three consecutive days. With zero income, such fines became unbearable,” he added. Ultimately, Jacob was forced to sell his third bus for just Rs 2.5 lakh. According to him, it should have fetched Rs 4 lakh.
Jacob dug into his savings to pay his 10-odd staff for a few months but asked them to find other jobs when he realised that things would not return to normal anytime soon.
Today, the one bus he is left with has an EMI of Rs 21,000. In December 2021, he sold one of his homes to clear some dues. Now, he drives the bus himself or hires a temporary driver if needed. Through all of January 2022, he got just two trips and barely managed to make ends meet.
Jocob’s tale is not unique. Even though the state government has tried to help them out with some concessions. On January 12th, the Maharashtra government announced a tax waiver of two years from motor vehicle taxes for school buses in Mumbai. Other demands of the School Bus Owners Association (SBOA) like an extension of the road life of school buses, since diesel school buses can ply on roads only for eight years, to compensate operators for the two years of income loss due to COVID-19 lockdowns, were not conceded to.
Revenue model followed by school bus operators
Maharashtra has about 42,000 school buses with about 8000 in Mumbai.
These buses are owned and run by individual operators, who provide transportation services to various schools and are paid from charges included in the school fees. However, some schools merely coordinate between bus operators and parents without levying any charges.
School Bus Safety Committees, chaired by principals, representatives of bus operators, parents, teachers, Regional Transport Office (RTO) officials, local political leadership and local social workers cap the bus transport fee levied on students.
Impact of lockdown
Fees for schools in Mumbai are often cleared between March and April, but since the first lockdown in March 2020, payments to bus operators were blocked. Many parents did not clear pending payments for months, and bus operators had no way to recover the money.
Legally, school buses are not allowed to take up non-school related or private commercial trips. With schools being shut during the pandemic, the bus owners had requested the government to allow them to ply commercially in order to sustain themselves during the lockdown. With train services having shut completely, there was a huge demand and opportunity for domestic private bus services.
“Although the government gave us oral assurances that we could conduct non-school trips due to the pandemic, they never issued a written order and oral assurances that no action would be taken against us did not help much,” said Ramesh Manian, acting joint secretary of the SBOA. “The only trips left available for us was to ply migrants returning to other states,” said Ramesh. Such trips, however, were fraught with risk. Ramesh and others like him found it difficult to send buses with inexperienced staffers on long routes out of Mumbai or Maharashtra.
How did staffers of school buses manage
Everyone from bus drivers, conductors and attendants had to move to other professions to sustain themselves.
Ganesh Subramaniam, 43, was forced to sell idlis on cycles once he realised school buses wouldn’t start. His neighbours helped him set it up. He has a diploma in mechanical engineering from the Industrial Training Institute (ITI) and worked as a school bus driver-cum-mechanic on a salary of Rs 15,000 a month. His employer did help pay for his children’s school fees but he had to buy an android mobile on an EMI of Rs 2150 to make online education accessible to his children. Fortunately for him, he seems to have settled comfortably into his new trade and now prefers not to go back to being a school bus driver. “You never know when schools in Mumbai and buses will stop all over again.Selling idlis seems more reliable,” Ganesh said.
The condition of conductors and cleaners is not good either. Rahul Choudhary, 29, has struggled to earn a steady income job after he lost his conductor job because of the lockdown. From helping out in the making of clay Ganesh idols to working on putting up pandals, or working with caterers, housekeeping, garages and grocery shops, he has tried his luck everywhere. “Most of these businesses are run by small people who themselves are struggling to get work, so they have no place for helpers like me,” he says.
What does the future hold?
“Even if schools do restart, it will need a lot of investment to get the buses back on the roads. The vehicle batteries, wiring, RTO certification etc all need updating,” says Manian, who owns around 65 buses. “Seeking fresh investments is difficult with no regular source of income right now.”
Anil Garg, president of the SBOA, feels that since most school bus staffers have moved on to other jobs, it will be difficult to source staffers even if school buses in Mumbai were to restart operations. “Most staffers have got work in grocery chains like D-Mart, in deliveries, or were hired in private buses contracted by BEST, while the women attendants have taken to working in malls or household work like cooking and cleaning,” he says.
Like so many other big and small other businesses, this one too faces a long road to revival.