Cranking up a success story

The charging rhino painted on the sides of ASTC buses had just about died: the corporation had outstandings amounting to Rs 120 crore, and was bogged down with a workforce that translated to 74 employees per bus. That was on May 21, 2001, when Anjan Dutta took over as state transport minister, as part of the newly installed Tarun Gogoi government. Hardly two years down the line, Assam has a success story that is the envy of many. "Satisfactory," is how Dutta describes ASTC?s turnaround. Quite an understatement, considering that the once broke organisation now pays its employees in advance----the same employees who hadn?t been paid salaries in 18 long years. The employee to bus equation is now at 9:1, and the organisation which earned nothing when Dutta started out, now makes a ?net profit? of Rs 1.35 crore every month. And considering that lately, the minister has been busy implementing a number of other schemes for the state transport corporation. So much so that Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh have sent their state transport managing directors to Guwahati to familiarise themselves with Dutta?s formula for success. ?West Bengal and Maharashtra too are in touch with us,? says Dutta. For the record: Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) with its fleet of CNG buses, smooth roads and newly constructed flyovers runs at a loss of Rs 18 crore per month.

It wasn't easy. With financing institutions refusing to bail out the ASTC, Dutta had to improvise. Old tyres, battery cases and spare parts were sold to raise the initial finance for the re-building process. Permits were issued to private bus operators to ply under the corporation's banner for a nominal one-time fee and a monthly commission. "Right now, there are 1,200 such buses under the ASTC banner. The corporation gets Rs 85 lakh a month from them. And it?s zero investment for us," says Dutta. Part of the main ASTC complex in Paltan Bazar in Guwahati has been rented out to private Tata Sumo operators and Tibetan refugees who set up a market every winter selling woolens. ASTC's workshops have been made accessible to private parties for maintenance and repair work. More money. A courier and cargo service was also introduced bringing in Rs 12 lakh to the ASTC?s coffers, along with Rs 35 lakh that it earns from its own buses every month.

That apart, Anjan Dutta has pulled off the unthinkable in a state where bloated, uncooperative government workforce has called the shots for years. He not only rightsized ASTC?s workforce by nearly 50 per cent, but also cleared all arrears due to employess who opted for VRS in 1998. ?We have also cleared 50 percent of arrears due to employees who retired in ?99. As for those who retired in 2000, 25 percent of the arrears have been cleared so far,? says Dutta.

Adding credibility to the re-building process is the minister himself, conducting surprise checks on ASTC buses. Such steps, widely appreciated by the local press and the public, have been backed up with innovative schemes such as scratch-cards for long-distance travellers, the lucky ones given discounts of up to 100 per cent on return tickets. While a local showroom has sponsored a Tata Indica car as the bumper prize, the corporation has so far distributed ten television sets through lotteries for passengers. Taking a cue, the Karnataka State Transport Corporation has now introduced scratch cards on the lines of ASTC?s scheme.

And things keep getting better. We also have 16 exclusive buses that serve soft drinks, lunch and dinner," says Dutta. Add to that four fully air conditioned buses that ASTC plans to launch this summer, in the oil districts of Assam, where people have more money. With the ASTC quite firmly entrenched, Dutta has begun taking steps to revamp Guwahati's deplorable city bus service. Two low-footboard luxury buses are being introduced as part of the city service. This is being done on an experimental basis, says Dutta, who has placed orders for the buses in Mumbai.

Dutta Schemes have now begun to benefit people who were so far being completely marginalised. More than 5,000 ITI diploma holders will now find employment in private workshops. Any workshop making more than five bus bodies a year will now have to employ ITI professionals, says Dutta. The minister also had the Assam Motor vehicles Act amended for greater safety on the roads. Every district will now have training institutes run by private parties who will recommend and provide licenses to those driving public vehicles. Additionally, for those renewing their licenses, a three- day refresher course in driving and traffic rules have been made compulsory.

ASTC's remarkable turnaround under Dutta, is, however, not without its despairs. A recent decision to streamline bus services and raise road taxes throughout the state, has soured his ministry's relations with the All Assam Motor Transport Association (AAMTA), which alleges that the transport department is out to destroy private bus operators and the four lakh people that the sector employs. Dutta, though, disagrees. "It is not possible to accept their demand for raising fares without a proper assessment, he says. But then those are the hiccups, and minor ones compared to what the ASTC has been through. As far as the larger picture goes, Dutta is an achiever, quite the dream CEO, who has got the ASTC, one of the state's poorest and most ill-managed departments, back on the road, quite literally. As for the cow analogy, not many try it any more. Not with Dutta.

By Monalisa Gogoi & Debashree Dey Adhikari (newsfiledelhi@hotmail.com)