Buses contracted by urban municipal corporations had been plying to rural areas within the 25-km radius from city limits by paying motor vehicle tax of city permits, which is lower than the mandated tax for stage carriages that provide rural service
By Sanavver Shafi
Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh: ‘I am a labourer earning only Rs 200 to 300 per day. It is hardly sufficient to take care of my family, including my wife and two children. For almost two months, the red bus [Bhopal City Link Limited] has stopped coming to my village. Commuting to Bairagarh and Bhopal has become difficult,’ said Suraj Mistry (34), a resident of Khajoori Sadak in Phanda block of Bhopal district.
Workers have to reach pitha (where work is assigned) at the Bairagarh intersection between 9 am to 10 am. ‘If you are late, chances of getting work are minimal. When the city bus was available, I used to reach on time. Now it is difficult as autos, Tata Magic and battery-operated vehicles are unavailable in the mornings. Even if I get one, the rate that the driver quotes is beyond my reach,’ he said.
Kamlesh Mistry (30) of the same village said he has to travel on foot for several km sometimes. At other times, he has to pay arbitrary fares. Shivcharan Sisodia (35) and Kaju Babulal (35) of Bilkisganj in Sehore district said they either walk or take a lift to the main road located about four km away. ‘To reach the pitha at Neelbad intersection, we have to travel 15.9 km.’
Bilkisganj resident Geeta Prajapati (21) is a BSc second-year student at the Government Nutan College, Bhopal. She used to take the red bus along with Deepa Singh (22), another student. Both Deepa and Geeta said they had availed of the BCLL’s monthly pass worth Rs 800. ‘We lost the money when the bus stopped its service abruptly. Now we walk 4 km to reach the main road. From there, we have to pay Rs 10 to 15 for an auto/battery-operated vehicle to reach Neelbad, from where red bus is available.’
‘Red buses are cheap, safe and convenient. They are equipped with cameras and run on time. The drivers and conductors are in uniform. The service is never stopped midway citing low passenger count,’ they said.
Diverting from permitted routes
After the disbanding of the Madhya Pradesh Road Transport Corporation, a city bus service was launched in 16 urban bodies under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission in 2012. The same year, Bhopal City Link Limited (BCLL), a holding company of Bhopal Municipal Corporation, started bus services through its contract operators after purchasing 80 new buses.
The BCLL currently operates 368 buses on 18 routes in Bhopal city. Earlier, 146 of these buses had ventured into 21 routes that serve over 200 villages. In October, these 146 city buses were prevented from rural service based on an order from the Madhya Pradesh High Court.
As per the Madhya Pradesh Motor Vehicle Taxation Act, 1991, the buses operating outside the city should pay taxes of stage carriages and not city permits. However, the BCLL buses had paid tax for city service only. The BCLL had sought permission from the State Urban Development and Transport Department in this regard, but it was not accepted.
Nevertheless, in 2017, BCLL, in connivance with officers at the Regional Transport Offices (RTOs), started operating 34 buses on rural routes. All these buses (SR-1 and SR-1A) were earlier running from Chirayu to Bairagarh Chichali within the urban limits. With time, the number of such services increased to 146.
RTI activist and transport expert Bhupendra Kumar Jain told 101Reporters that BCLL and transport officials colluded to benefit Capital Roadways Private Company it contracted. In the process, the Madhya Pradesh government suffered revenue losses.
‘We complained to the Transport Department in 2017 itself. Subsequently, Bhopal RTO Officer Sanjay Tiwari ordered checks on the routes of these 34 buses. The investigation revealed that 17 buses travelled 6.2 km outside the city limits in Phanda-Kalapani route. Permits were issued by paying tax of city service and not of stage carriages. Subsequently, Tiwari issued notices to BCLL for payment of tax difference amounting to Rs 60,72,144 and the penalty,’ Jain said.
Simultaneously, the other 17 buses on the Bairagarh Chichli-Phanda route were found to be operating 6.2 km outside the city limits. The tax amount to be recovered was Rs 58,07,880, for which notices were issued.
‘In these seven years, three transport commissioners, three divisional deputy transport commissioners and three RTO officers have changed, but the pending taxes have not been recovered. The outstanding dues have now jumped to Rs 8 crore. Notices issued to BCLL from time to time for its recovery are just a sham,’ he alleged.
Private bus operator Surendra Tanwani said the BCLL had been constantly expanding its fleet on rural routes. ‘Tax evasion is not limited to Bhopal city. It is spread across all 16 urban local bodies.’
According to its Public Relations Officer Sanjay Soni, the BCLL plunged into more rural routes after the then Chief Minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, announced the operation of urban buses within the 25 km radius of the municipal corporation limits to help rural residents, during a private programme in Bhopal on August 24, 2021.
‘The then Bhopal Municipal Corporation Commissioner VS Choudhary Kolsani pursued the matter by writing to the Principal Secretary, Chief Minister’s Office, and Additional Chief Secretary, Transport Department. Subsequently, in May 2022, the Transport Department issued an order permitting the operation of city buses of 16 urban municipal corporations of the state up to 25 km from the corporation limits.‘
Considering the demand, Bhopal RTO allowed 146 BCLL buses to operate on rural routes — Kanhasaiya, Hinotia, Bagroda, Bangrasia, Ratibad, Sukhi Sewaniya, Phanda, Parwalia Sadak, Intkhendi Sadak, Acharpura, Nayapura and Badjhiri to name a few. However, for more than a month, Bhopal RTO has not been giving a tax waiver due to the High Court order.
Soni said Jabalpur City Transport Services Limited (JCTSL) under the Municipal Corporation of Jabalpur had also been operating 70 buses outside the city limits. However, private bus operators moved the High Court, following which a Single Bench of Justice Vivek Aggarwal in its order dated October 11 prevented the city buses from operating illegal services by paying less tax. The High Court noted that the scheme under which the state had allowed rural service of city buses had not been notified in the Gazette.
Madhya Pradesh Transport Department Commissioner SK Jha told 101Reporters that the Motor Vehicle Taxation Act should be amended if tax exemption was to be given to BCLL buses. ‘There are clear instructions in the 1991 Act that Rs 90 per seat should be paid every three months for service in the city. If extended to rural areas, tax will have to be paid separately,’ Apparently, for rural service, the tax comes to Rs 200 per seat per month.
He said it has been clearly stated in the meetings held between the urban administration and Transport Department that tax exemption was not possible without changing the rules. He added that permits were being cancelled and notices were being issued for tax recovery when buses were found breaching the city limits.
JCTSL legal adviser Advocate Anshuman Singh told 101Reporters that they had challenged the Single Bench’s decision before the Division Bench of Chief Justice Ravi Malimath and Justice Vishal Mishra. ‘We got a conditional stay on November 3, according to which city buses were allowed to ply in public interest outside the city limits, but only after paying the prescribed tax. The RTO has issued notices for tax recovery. So, the company has decided to run its buses only within the city limits until the court settles the matter,’ he said. The next hearing in the High Court is on December 19.
Soni asked why the RTO issued them permits if they had really evaded tax. ‘We did seek permission to operate buses on rural routes by paying tax for city permits. We are providing affordable, easy and convenient public transport service to the residents,’ he asserted.
What private operators say
Rejecting Soni’s position, Prem Shankar Sahu, president, Mahanagari Bus Owner Seva Samiti, Bhopal, said it operates 30 buses with 32 seats on the Bhopal-Obedullaganj route. ‘We make a profit even after regularly paying taxes, whereas BCLL gets a 22 per cent subsidy for purchasing new buses. Yet, they demand less taxes,’ he said.
‘The RTO fees, tax, permit and insurance costs come to Rs 15,000 per month. An extra Rs 5,000 should be spent on maintenance and Rs 15,000 on employee salaries. Yet, I manage to save Rs 15,000 to 18,000 per month,’ said Suresh Sahu, who has two buses operating on Bhopal-Obedullaganj route.
Bus operator Ajay Kumar Gupta, who moved the High Court against rural service, told 101Reporters that he has four buses operating outside the city limits and it used to be profitable before the BCLL entered the scene. ‘I went to the High Court because it was becoming difficult to pay salaries,’ he said. Meanwhile, lawyer Brajesh Dubey, who is fighting the case of private bus operators, said tax exemption should be given to everyone if the government wishes so.
Atul Jain, the owner of Maa Associate contracted by BCLL, said they had stopped rural service following the High Court order as losses were likely if they operated without tax exemption.
Prince Joseph, the operations head of BCLL contracted Sri Durgamba Travels, said the operation of their 90 buses will become expensive if RTO did not allow exemption. ‘This is because our fares are fixed by the transport fare committee and we charge lower fares than private operators. We have limited the operation to 40 buses in urban areas now,’ he said.
Sanavver Shafi is a Madhya Pradesh-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.