Five years and a crackdown that ended up in nought

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Five years and a crackdown that ended up in nought
© Provided by The Indian Express

On December 25 last year, Punjab transport minister, Amrinder Singh Raja Warring, dashed to a private hotel in Amritsar to confront Delhi Chief Minister and AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal, who was in the state, over the issue of Punjab state corporation buses not being allowed to ply up to Delhi. Warring’s dash to meet the Delhi Chief Minister was as symbolic as it was urgent. It was reflective of how desperate he was to end the monopoly of big and influential private transporters in Punjab. Warring complained to Kejriwal that while buses run by a company belonging to the Badals were being allowed till Delhi International Airport, the Punjab state-run buses, which charged much lesser, were not allowed. Kejriwal told Warring that he will look into the matter.

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Five years after it formed the government in the state, and right at the threshold of 2022 Assembly elections, fulfilling a pre-poll promise it made in its 2017 manifesto – to end the monopolisation of transport – remains a far cry for the Congress in Punjab and has again emerged as one of the major poll issues.

Warring, who took over as state transport minister in September last year after a Cabinet reshuffle under new CM Charanjit Singh Channi, who replaced Captain Amarinder Singh at the helm, made headlines for his crackdown on “illegally” plying buses, many of them run by companies owned by the Badal family, and their close aide and Akali leader, Hardeep Singh Dimpy Dhillon.

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Several buses of companies owned by Badals and Dhillon were impounded in the crackdown and it was alleged that they were plying without depositing Special Road Tax. The SAD leaders immediately cried foul, allegimg vendetta and moved Punjab and Haryana High Court pleading that no prior notice was served to them, while stating that the delay in depositing the tax was due to the Covid pandemic and its impact on business. The High Court later ordered the release of the buses. The Congress government in Punjab, and Warring in particular, were left red faced and pushed on the back-foot after Supreme Court upheld the High Court’s decision staying the cancellation of permits of Orbit Aviation Private Limited, a company owned by the Badals.

Warring can, however, take solace in the fact that it was during his tenure as transport minister that 680 illegal extensions in bus route permits were cancelled. The extensions were cancelled in compliance with Punjab and Haryana High Court orders dating back to 2012, which were subsequently also upheld in 2018 and last year as court decided the litigations in the matter.

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Warring said that illegal extensions meant that the buses were plied in a illegal manner on one lakh kilometers. Under the Motor Vehicles Act 1988, a single extension of 24 km is permitted in the original route permit. The provision was flouted with impunity and scores of private bus operators managed to get extensions, thus, grossly tweaking the original route permit.

In 2012, after a private bus company approached court against a provision in 2011 transport scheme notified by the then government, the Punjab and Haryana High Court had ordered the cancellation of all route extensions to private bus operators, over the single 24 km extension permitted under the Motor Vehicles Act 1988.

The court struck down a provision in the Transport Scheme (policy) notified in December 2011 when SAD-BJP alliance government, led by Akali patron and then Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal was in power, which had empowered extension of operation of existing permits to an unlimited extent.

The Badal family is a big player in the transportation sector in Punjab with a massive fleet of buses. It has remained under the radar of opposition for monopolizing the transport business at the cost of state exchequer, a charge the Badals have always denied. Recently, Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee (PPCC) chief Navjot Singh Sidhu in a press conference in November last year had minced no words to questioning the monopoly as he said that buses run by Badals plied on “all lucrative routes and to the airport”.

Warring, however, claims that the crackdown under his command has got the cash register ringing again for Pepsu Road Transport Corporation (PRTC) and Punjab Roadways, with a steep rise in revenue after cancellation of illegal extensions. He also takes pride that the crackdown made the transporters deposit outstanding tax dues, resulting in collection of revenues in crores of rupees.

Warring adds that time tables had been “revised” after cancellation of illegal extensions.

“To end the monopoly, 2100 new bus permits have been issued. The permits have been given to the common people and the unemployed,” said Warring, adding that Rs 400 crore had been earmarked and tenders floated for construction of several new bus stands and renovation of number of existing ones.

He adds that out of 842 buses that Punjab transport department plans to add to its fleet, 300 buses were already in.

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