“ There is nothing new in world except the history you do not know.” – Harry Truman

Tip of the iceberg: A. A. Fayyaz exposes the rot in the State Road Transport Corporation (SRTC)

From Ahmed Ali Fayyaz

(Mr. Fayyaz, 47, was born in Bodina, Budgam, and received his primary and secondary education in Budgam and later at Amar Singh College, Srinagar. He completed his Master’s degree in Kashmiri language and literature from the University of Kashmir in 1987. He is the Srinagar bureau chief of Jammu & Kashmir’s largest-circulated newspaper, Daily Excelsior. )

SRINAGAR, Nov 27: Minister of Transport, Hakeem Mohammad Yasin, appears to have taken a calculated risk in ordering attachment of the Joint Managing Director of Jammu and Kashmir State Road Transport Corporation (SRTC), Yogesh Kaul and Assistant Accounts Officer (AAO), Mohammad Ashraf, on November 19th. But, on November 23rd, he has perhaps stirred the real hornets’ nest by issuing the attachment orders of 20 junior officials who have been actually running the poor public sector undertaking for years and decades while enjoying high political clout and—consequently—impunity.

Unlike many PSUs, SRTC’s affairs have been run by junior officials by virtue of the combination of their vocal chords, muscle power and political clout. When SRTC’s Managing Director (MD), M M Afzal, demonstrated uncommon adventurism and drove off to the National Highway outside the capital city of Jammu to catch a subordinate driver red-handed in November 19th, 1997, he was forced to eat the humble pie in less than a fortnight. Afzal had taken the expeditious drive over a substantial complaint which revealed that a “mafia of drivers, conductors, accountants and managers” had been swindling more than 40 percent of the corporation’s revenue since long. As the MD, accompanied by a General Manager, forced a Katra-Jammu bus to halt and desired to know the driver’s identification, he was publicly humiliated and shouted to silence.

Fearing a physical assault, the poor MD was quick to withdraw and return to his office chambers. As anybody would do, the MD issued the hot-headed driver’s suspension orders. Not one or two, but four influential politicians—including two Cabinet Ministers— swung into action on the suspended driver’s push-button. Their intervention resulted into the revocation of suspension orders in less than two weeks. MD had to be content with the nominal fine of Rs 500 for the driver’s “not-so-serious misconduct”. His helplessness is implicitly recorded in the reinstatement order issued vide No: MD/JKSRTC/5488-91 dated 2-12-1997. This entry of misconduct is nowhere mentioned in the driver’s service records.

According to an earlier order, issued by SRTC’s Deputy General Manager (M&S), Jammu, vide No: JKSRTC/DGM/M&S/F-24/6 dated 6-01-1992, same helper-turned-driver had been placed under suspension for making as assault on Works Manager (TF) Jammu on 3-1-1992 inside his office chambers. “He was repeatedly asked by the Works Manager to leave the office but instead of leaving the office, Mohammad Arif, Helper took out the knife and scared him. He caught Works Manager by the neck and pounded left side of his face”, says the official text. Inspite of the registration of FIR at Police Station Trikuta Nagar, the helper was soon reinstated and thereafter promoted. He is now among the 20 officials removed from duty and attached to a different department on Hakeem Yasin’s orders. Yet again, quite a number of politicians and their conduits are on tenterhooks.

According to insiders, the most influential lot of officials remains invariably posted in the most lucrative inter-State bus service of the corporation, which runs 100 buses to 6 north Indian states. Others of this privileged lot have invariably remained posted with the 150-bus Tourist Fleet, which operates on Jammu-Srinagar National Highway and Jammu-Katra. Yet another vociferous lot remains busy with politics and “trade union activity”. Two senior General Managers (GMs) confirmed that, be it Jammu or Srinagar, more than 30 drivers and equal number of conductors had never done the duty they were supposed to do in the last 15 years.
“A number of drivers collect fare from passengers and operate as conductors. They put a junior conductor on the steering wheel and embezzle receipts. Some others have been simply doing sloganeering. They influence senior officials to first create some trouble for junior officials and later do their trouble-shooting against cash payment. One can easily check the log books and find that over two dozen of our drivers and conductors have never handled a vehicle”, revealed a GM. According to him, SRTC had been suffering loss of Rs 10 cr a year only because of the “fraudulent conduct” of drivers, conductors, accountants and managers, enjoying strong political clout.

It is now for the first time in SRTC’s 31-year history that as many as 24 blue-eyed boys have been attached and driven out of the corporation. They include nine of 20-odd officials who had been shifted by former MD, A K Mehta, from the inter-state passenger service to the least preferred district services. They also include the ‘bold’ driver who had the temerity of assaulting a Works Manager and thereafter publicly humiliating the MD and forcing him withdraw the suspension orders in two weeks. Sources reveal that immediately after Mehta removed 20 particular officials to the “cell” postings, SRTC’s revenue showed considerable increase of 20 to 25 percent. Immediately after Mehta was shifted to a different posting, almost all the truncated officials staged a comeback. Results have been disastrous: SRTC’s revenue from the back-bone inter-state service was Rs 38 cr in the first two quarters of the year in 2006. It reduced to Rs 30 cr for the same period in 2007.

On the other hand, the number of luxurious cars, Taxi fleets and palatial houses acquired and owned by junior officials, including many drivers and conductors, has remarkably increased. Their patrons in the corporation have been equal beneficiaries. Insiders calculate a senior official’s expenditure on his pets alone at Rs 20,000 a month. This particular official is now facing the charges of having made backdoor appointment of more than 500 people in the last few years. Everybody from Minister to Transport Commissioner to the newly appointed MD, Manzoor Ahmed Lone, tried best to get the exact number of the SRTC staff in the last two months. It varied from 4500 to 4900. When the senior authorities failed to get the employee code numbers of many drivers, they issued their attachment order on November 23 without the same.

It was also observed that senior officials, including the just attached joint MD, have practiced total anarchy, not only in making backdoor appointments but also in making transfers, suspensions and reinstatements, granting promotions and changing cadres without authority besides auctions and purchasing of spare parts.

SRTC, which is currently operating under the red balance of Rs 107 cr, including loan of Rs 28 cr from J&K Bank, has been a white elephant for the State Government but a lush green pasture for blue-eyed boys of many politicians and bureaucrats. “We need to earn revenue of Rs 95 cr a year to reach the break even point. We have got to spend around Rs 42 cr on salaries, Rs 33 cr on fuel and lubricants, Rs 6 cr on spares and Rs 10 cr on repayments. For the current year, Government has given us cash assistance of Rs 17 cr. Even if we earn Rs 60 cr, we will be falling short by Rs 30 to Rs 35 cr”, MD SRTC, Manzoor Lone, said.

Lone explained that SRTC had to pay Rs 1.00 lakh a day to J&K Bank on account of compound interest alone. The staff have not taken salaries of last about three months. Even the employees’ CP Fund deductions have not been posted for many years. For the first time, SRTC has lifted loan of Rs 10 cr, in addition to Government’s yearly financial support, but the same stands restricted to acquisition of vehicles and augmentation of its fleets. In 9th 5-year plan, SRTC had received support of Rs 22.57 cr but it has drastically reduced to 6.73 cr in the just ended 10th 5-year plan.

Lone is confident about a significant increase in the revenue if the attached employees remained at bay. “I don’t know why they are crying hoarse. We have neither placed them under suspension nor terminated their services. We are ready to pay them full salaries if they all confine themselves to their respective homes and let the sincere, hardworking officials deliver. When they were on duty, until November 23, our daily receipts were between Rs 4.50 lakh to Rs 5.00 lakh. On Monday, our net receipts increased to Rs 6.25 lakh and on Tuesday it went further up to Rs 6.65 lakh”, Lone revealed. He said that, in compliance with the Government order, he was still holding an inquiry but the charges were so serious that one particular manager, who remained posted in inter-state service in New Delhi, was alleged to have swindled Lakhs of Rupees every month. When the official was called back to Jammu and posted as Manager Load, he failed to deliver. He was consequently attached to Transport Commissioner’s office.

Eighteen-year-long armed insurgency, which destroyed the tradition of work culture, has come as a tragedy for SRTC but a veritable boon for the unscrupulous elements indulging in loot-and-scoot of public money. Since its conversion from Government Transport Undertaking (GTU) to SRTC in 1976, corporation had managed its entire expenditure, including salaries, out of its internal resources till 1990. Militants destroyed as many as 117 vehicles in SRTC which had a fleet of 1684 buses and trucks in January 1990. Corporation has disposed off 1382 vehicles by auction. It has replaced 886 buses and trucks and maintained a fleet of 1188 vehicles but SRTC high-ups insist that only 700 vehicles—450 buses and 250 trucks—were operational. As against the continuously loss-making district passenger service of 150 buses and city service of 50 buses, only 100 buses operating in inter-state service and 150 in Tourist Fleet have been showing profits, inspite of siphoning by well-connected officials.

Though SRTC enjoyed a degree of monopoly in the passenger services till 1990, in the last 17 years it has obviously reduced to a skeleton in the State which has now nearly 600,000 vehicles, including 30,000 buses and equal number of trucks and load-carriers.