‘Unpaid, Undervalued’: Why Kashmiri Wheelmen Don’t Want New Fleet

“Many transporters who’ve tested positive for Covid have no money for treatment and to support their families.”

By Umer Ahmad

AT a time when their private counterparts are once again doing odd jobs to sustain their families in another lockdown in the valley, the official transporters are frowning upon the fresh fleet added to their yard.

The distressed drivers say their parent body—State Road Transport Corporation (SRTC)—is building up its bus strength at the cost of their pitiful plight.

“All this is being done while keeping drivers unpaid and undervalued,” said Firdous Ali, Workers Union President, SRTC.

“We haven’t received any salary from last 5 month.”

Firdous said there’re 2100 employees who’re being dragged into every situation, be it Covid, elections or any emergency duties.

“And yet,” he added, “we’re not being paid on time. How can we work when we’ve nothing to feed our families?”

As the government agency, SRTC—which succeeded the former Government Transport Undertaking on September 1, 1976, under Road Transport Corporation Act of 1950—provides road transport within Jammu and Kashmir and the adjacent states.

From 1135 buses in the year 1988-89, SRTC presently owns just 497 buses, with 278 of them operating on different routes of J&K. The fleet was downsized to prevent the government-owned corporation from bankruptcy.

In this backdrop, the new and expensive fleet has only come as a big surprise for the ‘destitute driver’ class grossly affected by the corporation’s ‘fall from the grace’.

As a consolidated worker with SRTC from last 10 years, Firdous said he should’ve been a permanent employee by now as per the rules.

“But instead of coming to our rescue,” he rued, “our department is planning to buy new buses. Who will drive them, if the department won’t take care of its drivers?”

Procuring new vehicles and keeping salaries of its employees pending, he said, shows insensitivity and bad management.

“We remain at the forefront of every tricky situation in the valley and yet we’re facing this unfortunate treatment from our parent department,” the union president continued.

“Currently, we’re out on the roads performing our duties when most of the people are saving their skin from this pandemic by staying indoors. Many of our drivers have tested positive for Covid and yet the department is hardly concerned for our wellbeing.”

It’s very difficult for transporters to survive in the current situation, he added.

“Most of us can’t even afford medicine, and transporters who tested positive for Covid-19 have no money for treatment and to support their families. The government is leaving us with no other option than to leave the job and take any daily-wage work. That way, at least, we can provide meals to our children.”

Kashmir Observer tried to contact SRTC higher-ups for their take on the concerns raised by the distraught drivers, but all attempts failed to get the official response. As and when they respond, this story will be updated.

Meanwhile, decrying the indifference, Kashmiri transporters said they’re ready to serve people in tough times, “but we’ve no resources left to perform our duties. We’ve to arrange transport from our homes these days because there’s no public transport available on roads.”

Wajahat Hussain, Chairman Workers Union, SRTC, said that while government is planning to strengthen its fleet, it’s not paying any heed to address the drivers’ concerns.

“We protested for our basic demands early this year and finally on 8 March 2021, government in a meeting told us that our salaries will be cleared in two installments,” Wajahat said.

“But only one installment was paid and worse, government isn’t keeping its promise.”

Further, Wajahat said, hundreds of transporters who retired from their services since 2019 haven’t received their retirement fund worth Rs 25 crore from the department.

“After my term ended in 2019, I was looking forward to get my daughters married with my retirement fund, but it has been two years since I haven’t received a single penny,” said Farooq Ahmad, a former transporter from Srinagar who served SRTC for 39 years.

“We approached higher-ups time and again, but they’re just keeping us in good homour, without fulfilling our rightful demand.”

Meanwhile, “unpaid” union president, Firdous, is getting worried for his family welfare amid another Covid curfew in Kashmir.

“I’m working with the department from last one decade with a monthly salary of Rs 7500,” he said.

“It’s hard to support a family with such a small amount. My children have been thrown away from school because I couldn’t afford their monthly fees.”

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