Chennai MTC absenteeism rises, bus trips stagnate

The Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) in Chennai is not known to be a transparent organisation in the best of times. As the monopoly bus operator in this big international city of about 6 million people, MTC remains an unprofessionally managed and functionally anachronistic agency, which cannot deliver the goods for 21st century transport needs.

Held together by plastic rope - a route E18 MTC service on Anna Salai
Held together by plastic rope - a route E18 MTC service on Anna Salai

This picture taken of one of the new buses operated as an “Express” service by MTC on route number E18 (Guduvanchery – Broadway) is a good example of the tattered state of the operator’s management. It shows one part of the bus being held together by plastic rope, fortifying the image that the existing management framework for this bus corporation cannot rise beyond rickety structures.

Despite such a poor showing, India’s Ministry of Urban Development continues to avoid stronger oversight of the DMK Government’s use of funds under schemes such as Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission.

Is the MTC being unfairly criticised after all the talk about its amazing expansion over the past two years? The answer to this question lies not in the claims made by the monopoly, and certainly not in the public relations pictures that are regularly published by newspapers. 

It lies deep in the innards of the website operated by MTC at In a clever strategy, the MTC has been tom-toming the induction of new buses since the DMK Government came to power. It is indeed true that after the haemorrhage caused by the AIADMK’s policies under Ms.Jayalalitha, public transport suffered incalculably. But there is not much glory for the DMK, if its performance is put under the lens.

Perhaps the most damning statistic is that of the number of services operated. While Mr. Karunanidhi’s government unhesitatingly and shamelessly pats itself on the back about the number of buses launched, it does not explain why the net service increase was only about 175 over the previous year (see table, from MTC website). 

Also giving away the game is the narrow increase in the service augmentation despite a supposedly huge augmentation of fleet. While the claim is that 1139 new buses have been put on the road in 2007-08, which represents about 40 per cent of then existing strength, the number of services rose only by 175. 

Absenteeism, which is a major factor in bus operations, has been on the rise in the last five years in MTC, for whatever reason. We assume that the MTC is not a political organisation, and hence the vagaries of politics should not affect it. Or should we imagine that absenteeism will rise during DMK rule, because the crew feel more comfortable to absent themselves? To substantiate, the absenteeism rate was 5.93 in 2002-03, while in 2007-08, it has risen to 8.23. This is only marginally lower than the previous year’s figure of 8.32. The accident rate for MTC buses per lakh kilometres has also been rising, from 1.33 five years ago, to 1.73 now. If MTC is going to blame the state of Chennai traffic for this, we have no choice but to bounce the ball back : if the bus services had kept pace in reliability, comfort, efficiency and customer-friendliness with the changing travel market, there would have been less of personal vehicle use. 

All this brings us back to the central theme of modernisation of the MTC, which is long overdue. We have been demanding that the UPA Government walk its talk about the National Urban Transport Policy and compel its recalcitrant ally in Tamil Nadu to change its ways. It is our view that the days of using transport corporations for unionised mobilisation of cadres for political activity are long gone. Today what the city needs is a good transport backbone, and there is no easier way to put that in place than with a working bus system, one that is truly commuter-friendly.

We need travel as you please passes that are sold across the counter all through the month, every day, and not at the whim of MTC bureaucrats. We need MTC to stop packing its buses with commuters in its greed to produce a better balance sheet. This will also avoid innocent commuters who are unable to buy tickets in overloaded buses from facing fines and boorish, foul-mouthed and sometimes violent checking staff of MTC .


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