Long past its heydays of monopoly over long-distance public transport, the Assam State Transport Corporation enjoyed a brief revival when Late Anjan Dutta was in charge of the Transport department during 2001-06. But no long-term lessons have been learnt from that respite. The ASTC is now back to its bad old ways of waste and mismagement. Its backsliding has reached a stage where accumulated losses are Rs 700 crore. Figures furnished recently in the Assembly by Transport minister Chandramohan Patowary make sad reading. Over 270 of ASTC buses are turning into scrap in its yards. Among these are 100 top quality buses procured by the previous government not long ago. Some of these were seen on Guwahati streets during the SAF Games early this year. Worth crores of rupees of public money, how can such shameful waste be endured? The ASTC workforce is bloated as well as skewed. It is said to have two drivers for every long-distance bus, but few mechanics in its workshops to keep the buses in road-worthy condition. Repair and maintence has long been the Achilles heel of the ASTC, so it is surprising why it is still not being addressed. The Transport minister now says that when procuring buses, his department will make it mandatory for manufacturers to include repairs in the agreement as after-sales service at least for a year. Granted that the ASTC has to operate buses on unprofitable routes to serve local populations, a burden private operators do not have to bear. But this should have made the Transport authority leverage upon the assets ASTC still has, particularly its large chunks of real estate. The department has long mooted commercial projects on prime ASTC land and buildings in urban areas. Since it will be too much to expect the government to fork out all the money in the prevailing tight fiscal situation, the officials in charge of ASTC need to be backed to raise money aggressively from the market. While conditions now are far different from 2001, it would do well to remember how Anjan Dutta backed his officials to the hilt and took care of all political decisions at the top. The ASTC authority had then boldly struck deals with private operators for public-private partnership (PPP) over buses. ASTC yards were rented out for private buses to ply under ASTC banner as well as for shops by private parties, Tata Motors provided mechanics to train ASTC staff in repairs, a zero-based inventory system was adopted to purchase only necessary spare parts instead of maintaining large stocks. Every bus was considered a profit-maker, with the owner giving 10 percent of profits to ASTC for maging the buses. ASTC employees too were made responsible for buses that plied under their watch. Minister Dutta meanwhile saw to it that bus owners were kept out of the clutches of motor vehicle inspectors and policemen, that ASTC routes got tiolized, that new permits were issued only for buses running under ASTC. This is the kind of political will and commitment that can keep public institutions running and blow life into dead ones. It is a lesson the BJP-led government in Assam should keep in mind as it seeks private capital for public projects and goads its officials to come up with ingenious strategies.
ASTC revival plans