A Tribune investigation
Chandigarh, September 27
The situation is now reversed. Of the 7,500 buses plying on Punjab roads for public transport today, nearly 4,000 belong to the private operators giving them a 60 per cent share. Punjab Roadways, PRTC and its subsidiaries — Punbus and Kilometre Scheme — all put together have only 3,500.
It is not as though there is anything wrong with private players entering the transport sector. In fact, they have considerably improved connectivity, comfort and efficiency. The real issue is how the top state politicians especially Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and his son Sukhbir, the Deputy Chief Minister, have now managed to control an even larger share of the expanding private-sector pie. Also, how the transport policy has been tailored to the benefit of private operators.
In Part 1 of The Tribune investigation published yesterday, it was revealed that the private operators have benefited at the cost of the state exchequer, the state-owned public transport organisations and also the poor of Punjab.
Other than the Badals, among the private bus operators are the families of the Speaker of Punjab Vidhan Sabha Nirmal Singh Kahlon, BJP legislator Jagdish Sahni, PPP chief Manpreet Singh Badal, former Congress legislators Avtar Singh Henry, Amrik Singh Dhillon and Jasbir Singh Gill (Dimpa) besides the sitting MLA Amarjit Singh Samra (Congress) and families of former (late) legislators Dilbagh Singh Nawan Shahr and Kirpal Singh Libra.
Parkash Singh Badal in his affidavit submitted to the Returning Officer of Lambi constituency before the 2007 Assembly elections had declared family shares in Dabwali Transport and Real Estate Company and Baaz Transport Private Limited. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, Harsimrat Badal in her affidavit declared that her husband, Sukhbir Badal, had 28,551 shares of Rs 10 each in Dabwali Transport Company and 2,570 shares of Rs 100 each in Baaz Transport company.
Similarly, Avtar Henry had also given details of shares he and his wife hold in Kartar Bus Service, besides the 27 trucks he owns as a trucker. Jasbir Singh Gill, alias Dimpa, had also declared his shares in New Piyar Bus Service, though he now claims that he has sold his share in the family owned transport company.
In the Bathinda District Transport Office (DTO) alone, of the 440 buses registered private operators have a total of 270 buses. (Public sector transport companies have 170). These private companies operate their buses to various destinations from Bathinda to the rest of Punjab.
Officially, the Badals directly own 80 buses mainly in three companies — Orbit, Dabwali and Baaz — that dominate the Malwa region.
But in the past five years they are said to have been quietly acquiring controlling interests in at least 10 other private companies and now manage their operations. They now control directly or indirectly 130 of the 270 private buses registered in the Bathinda DTO. Though Manpreet Badal and his father Gurdas, the brother of the chief minister, had shares in the transport companies held by the Badal family, a decade ago there was a family settlement and a clear division was made. Manpreet claims he now owns only three buses registered under the name of Raghuraj Transport company.
When compared to the overall number of buses that ply in the state, these numbers do not look significant. But when one looks at the luxury and super-luxury sectors, the Badals have a virtual monopoly in the Malwa region. In the super-luxury segment all the 17 super-integral buses that provide air-conditioned luxury travel on trunk routes connecting major Punjab cities with Chandigarh belong to the families of the CM and his son.
In the luxury segment, the Badal companies and other private operators dominate. A study of figures available with the four Regional Transport Authorities located in Patiala, Jalandhar, Ferozepur and Bathinda show just how much they actually control. Among the the state-owned corporations, Punjab Roadways has 84 HVAC (High Vacuum Air-conditioned Coaches) and 23 Integral buses and PRTC has 48 HAVC and 14 Integral buses. Together the public sector companies have 169 buses in this segment.
On the other hand, private operators have between them 203 HAVC and 75 Integral buses totaling 278 or two thirds of the total such buses that ply in the state. Put together the Badals allegedly control directly or indirectly 167 of the 464 luxury and super luxury buses that ply in the state equivalent to both Punjab Roadways and PRTC.
Despite concerted efforts, The Tribune reporters could not get balance sheets of private bus operators who have been growing strong financially as is reflected by the growing size of their fleet of buses and new route permits they have got during the past few years. When The Tribune reporters contacted companies controlled by the Badal they refused to comment on either their holdings, the number of buses they own and also their controlling interest in other private corporations.
In Part 3, The Tribune would show how a suspiciously supportive government policy has ensured that private operators can not only recover their costs but make profits too.
(Prabhjot Singh with inputs from Sushil Goyal, Gagan K. Teja, Ravi Dhaliwal, Pawan Kumar Jaiswar, Neeraj Bagga and Kusum Arora).