Over two months after the public transport came to a halt due to the COVID-19 lockdown, the Tamil Nadu government resumed the operation of buses in many districts on Monday (June 1). As only 50 per cent of the buses were operated, some people rushed onto buses to get seats, flouting social distancing norms.
According to the transport department’s instruction, 40 and 55 seater buses ran with a maximum of 24 and 32 passengers respectively as the government had limited the maximum capacity of commuters to 60 per cent. So, private bus operators refrained from beginning operations. However, 5,659 government buses have started to run.
The department had also said conductors should not allow passengers, who did not wear masks, inside buses. Passengers should board buses from the rear door and exit from the front door and cleanse their hands with sanitisers provided in the buses, it had said.
In districts like Kanyakumari, buses were not operated as markets had been set up in depots temporarily. In some other districts, images showed people rushing onto buses, while drivers and conductors were clueless about how to manage the crowd.
Earlier, the government had announced that buses would charge 50 per cent extra to compensate for the loss due to their operation with lesser seating. A section of the society welcomed the decision saying it would discourage people from travelling unnecessarily and prevent buses from getting crowded, thereby ensuring social distancing.
However, the government on May 31 said it had withdrawn its earlier order and the fares would remain the same. Experts feared that the reversal in the decision might leave more people to rely on public transport and, if precautions were not taken, it would lead to a disaster.
“Though there is no change in fares, we did not see many passengers on the first day,” said Dayanandam, an office-bearer of Tamil Nadu State Transport Employees Federation. “One reason is that people still fear to come out of their homes. We are providing sanitisers inside buses and ensuring social distancing. But, if people don’t support us, this will be risky,” he said.
Meanwhile, State Transport Minister MR Vijaya Bhaskar said the government had introduced Paytm service in buses on a pilot basis to ensure contactless ticketing system. “Besides, we have given three sets of cotton masks to transport employees. Since public movement is little, we can ensure social distancing,” he said.
The Opposition said the government had reversed the fares vying for the assembly elections in the state next year. “The government has allowed buses to run with only 60 per cent capacity, but it has reopened its offices and allowed industries to function,” said K Natarajan, president, Labour Progressive Federation, the labour wing of the DMK.
“Many people depend on public transport. If the drivers and conductors allow only 32 people on a bus, do you think the other passengers will heed that?” he asked.
In order to control the crowd, we need police support, said Dayanandam. “Employees cannot check the temperature of each and every passenger. We have also sought the support of the health department. Only after a couple of days, we can ascertain the condition,” he added.