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The big bad bus scam: How Andhra Pradesh, Telangana are hitting the opposition where it hurts

When accidents such as the Gajulapalle tragedy take place, bus owners get away, while officials, police and local politicians line their pockets.

india Updated: Jul 17, 2017 18:04 IST
GS Radhakrishna
GS Radhakrishna
Grist Media
Andhra Pradesh,Bus scam,Chandrababu Naidu
The Andhra Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation (APSRTC) has been languishing for over a decade on the benefits given out by the state government.(Facebook/ APSRTC buses)

On 11th June, 12 passengers were injured when a private bus registered under the Arunachal Pradesh Transport Department, was on its way to Visakhapatnam and rammed into an electric pole near Gajulapalle, Andhra Pradesh after the ‘dizzy’ driver lost control.

Shockingly enough, subsequent video footage from the accident revealed that some people were busy trying to cover its logo and license plate using paint. The video triggered a debate in local media in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, followed by allegations of collaboration between politicians and officials with private bus operators.

Andhra Pradesh CM Chandrababu Naidu had, in the last TDP Mahanadu on May 28, asked party men to report to CID and ACB (Anti-Corruption Bureau) about the alleged illegal activities of all Opposition leaders in the liquor, sand and bus business across the state. Naidu meant to target the YSR Congress, the Congress and the Left, whose leaders are allegedly involved.

However, this move caught several of TDP’s own leaders in its net, and particularly angered Vijayawada TDP MP and owner of Kesineni Travels, Kesineni Srinivas (Nani), resulting in the exposure of a big scam.

Following the Gajulapalle incident, the Arunachal Pradesh government cancelled the permits of all buses that were registered with them but didn’t operate in the state. Around 900 private buses were reportedly affected in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh in June, following a letter written by Nani to the state on the issue. “I followed it up with Arunachal Pradesh authorities and ensured the cancellation,” Nani told the media.

Acting on the issue, both state governments started seizing vehicles citing State and Central Motor Vehicles Rules. Andhra Pradesh Transport Minister K Atchan Naidu has defended the drive to crack down on private buses (unregistered sleeper services) with other state registrations.

Private bus operators in both states said that this radical move was an ‘act of revenge’ due to pressure from Nani. In a press conference on 17th June, Private AP State Contract Carriage Bus Owners’ Association vice-president M Sunil Kumar Reddy, owner of Orange Travels and YSR Congress leader from Krishna district in Andhra Pradesh, said that private bus owners pay close to Rs 1.35 lakh as quarterly inter-state tax, despite the government’s knowledge that their buses were registered in other states.

The promotion of private transport companies by Congress and TDP has become a major source of revenue. Political observers say that Naidu is now strategically hitting big money funders and opposition resources that could play against him in the coming elections — Congress in Telangana, and YSR Congress (YSRC) and dissidents in AP. Officially, the new move is supposed to improve revenues of government transport services and curb private travel companies.

Bosses of both the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) in Telangana and the TDP in Andhra have often charged the opposition with ‘buying votes’ during elections. After his involvement in the ‘vote-for-note’ case in the 2015 MLC elections in Telangana, Naidu alleged the YSRC and Congress of a ‘vote-buying spree’ in the 2014 polls — that the YSRC paid bribes of Rs 7,000 per vote in Kadapa and other segments where the party posed a tough fight to the TDP. The Election Commission too had reported the seizure of huge cash and liquor during pre-election raids in 2014.

“Chandrababu Naidu is [now] using every trick in the book to stifle Opposition resources ahead of the 2019 polls, and ensure a safe Assembly debut for his son Lokesh who is CM designate in the 2019 polls,” Pasam Jagannath Naidu, a political analyst of Vijayawada, told HT.

The situation is similar in Telangana as well, where Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) is keen to anoint his son KTR (K Taraka Rama Rao) as his successor. Both regimes have let loose their official machinery on industrialists, businessmen, real estate and civil contractors who support the Opposition in their respective states.

“Not that KCR hates them, but they are presently the golden goose,” said Mohammed Ali Shabbir, Congress leader in the Telangana Legislative Council, hinting at the attack on various Opposition moneybags by the ruling parties of both states.

M Harikrishna Rao, who once operated city bus services in Vijayawada and Rajahmundry, told HT that, “Private bus business has now become a big industry where crores flow in cash every day.” According to Rao, politicians and industrialists turned to private transport when TDP founder NT Rama Rao championed prohibition in the 1990s and even denied tickets to MLAs and party leaders engaged in liquor business.

“In the past, political leaders fancied civil contracts and mine ownership in AP, but now they are engaged as private bus operators and lorry and JCB owners,” Nanjundaiah, a social activist in Anantapur, tells HT.

The Big Bus Scam

On 30th June, the Andhra Pradesh High Court gave a temporary stay on the government’s action to seize ‘sleeper’ buses registered in other states. It has directed the state government to file an affidavit by July 10.

Andhra’s Road Transport Department authorities have revealed that most of the private buses are registered as ‘All India Tourist Operators’ in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Odisha, Assam, Nagaland and Puducherry, instead of in Andhra Pradesh or Telangana, where they actually ply.

When accidents such as the Gajulapalle tragedy take place, bus owners get away, while officials, police and local politicians line their pockets. On 28th February, 11 people died and 30 injured as a Diwakar Travels bus fell into a canal near Moolapadu village in Krishna district. The Andhra Pradesh government gave a clean chit to Diwakar Travels — owned by Anantapur MP JC Diwakar Reddy’s family — before then being pulled up by the Hyderabad High Court that gave it three weeks to file a detailed counter affidavit on the case. The clean chit was given by Principal Secretary of the AP Transport Department Sumita Dashe, even though two Deputy Commissioners of Labour had issued notices that the bus was not registered under the Motor Transport Workers Act.

A Fuming Bus Baron and Mounting Losses

On 26th March, Nani had gheraoed the Transport Commissioner Balasubramanyam at the RTC (Road Transport Corporation) office, alleging that he had conspired to give illegal permits to private transport operators in order to make money. Naidu compelled the MP to apologise, which Nani considered a public humiliation. A film distributor and a bus operator, Nani had thrown his weight behind Naidu since the 2014 elections.

Enraged, Nani had shut down his sleeper bus operations, which comprises over 50 in a fleet of 200 hi-tech and ordinary buses plying in Vijayawada urban and suburban routes and to Hyderabad and Chennai.

“I took up the issue along with another TDP MP with the Arunachal Pradesh authorities and got the registration and permits of 900 sleeper buses [out of a total of 2,400 operating in AP and Telangana] belonging to rivals cancelled,” Nani told HT.

Challenging the fiat from Arunachal Pradesh, Sunil Reddy said that around 400 private buses with Arunachal Pradesh registration were operating from AP to Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka. “Arunachal Pradesh authorities are yet to issue show-cause notices seeking our clarification before cancelling of registration,” he told The Hans India, alleging that these were the “dirty tactics” of MP Nani. “AP gives permissions to buses with a capacity of 24 berths only while Arunachal Pradesh gives 36 berths. While the permit fees is about Rs 7.2 lakhs per annum in AP and Telangana, it is less than Rs 18,000 in Arunachal and Nagaland.”

The sudden withdrawal of nearly 1,000 private buses in Arunachal and Nagaland has caused a major handicap for tourists and IT travellers, especially those from Hyderabad, Visakhapatnam and Tirupati.

The Andhra Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation (APSRTC) has been languishing for over a decade on the benefits given out by the state government. After the bifurcation in 2014, there’s been a delay in bifurcation of bus permits as APSRTC continues to control all permits. As of 2013, the APSRTC had reported a cumulative loss of Rs 4,000 crore and bank loans of Rs 2,000 crore.

In AP, private bus owners are a powerful lobby who operate sleeper and video coaches at night to Hyderabad from eight coastal districts — Visakhapatnam, East and West Godavari, Guntur, Krishna, Prakasam, Nellore and Chittoor. They also operate night ‘sleepers’ to Bhubaneswar, Pune, Chennai, Bangalore and Trivandrum.

On the other hand, the state-run APSRTC operates hardly 500 to 750 buses on night services to long destinations, along with a handful of Garuda ‘sleeper’ buses. Private operators run over 50 sleeper buses from just Hyderabad to Bangalore, while RTC officials say that they operate only four to five sleeper buses to Bangalore.

“How come what is denied to RTC is allowed for private buses who are clocking an annual revenue of over Rs 3,000 crore,” asks social activist CL Narasimha Rao. Rao also said that political parties are giving leverage to officials to make money.

AP Transport Additional Commissioner P Srinivas refused to be drawn into the discussion. “It is a policy issue and I cannot comment.”

So does the AP Transport Minister K Atchan Naidu when questioned about the politics behind the move. “We go by the rule book of Central Motor Vehicles Act,” he said. “We want to stop the menace of private operators who are risking the lives of gullible passengers. Soon, we will rope in more Volvos and Ashok Leyland and Benz-Mercedes sleepers to our [state-run] fleet of Amaravati buses.”

(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)

First Published: Jul 17, 2017 18:03 IST