Wayanad bus owner's suicide exposes harsh realities of COVID hit private bus sector
Way back in 1986 when the bus named Sreelakshmi started to move from Vaduvanchal to Kalpetta, Rajamani of Palancherry was in the driving seat. Later on, he became a bus owner who gives livelihood for many. Even when many bus services were stopped, Sreelakshmi Travels group continued its pursuit in private sector under Rajamani’s leadership. The group was bifurcated and the bus services took the names of Indian rivers like Ganga, Yamuna and Brahmaputra.
A tragic suicide
Rajamani who owned two bus services, sold one among them years before due to financial burden. Then came the pandemic which added to his turmoil. Brahmaputra, the bus owned by him was not operated for more than a year due to the COVID-19 curbs. Despite the relaxations to COVID-19 guidelines, the bus service remained stopped as Ambalavayal panchayath was repeatedly included in the containment zone.
Devoid of income, Rajamani was battered. He ended up committing suicide on Sunday. He consumed poison and was found critical in a plantation near his residence. Though he was rushed to the hospital he succumbed on Monday.
Rajamani is survived by his wife Subhadhra and two children Sukanya and Sreenath.
According to Rajamani’s relatives, he was going through severe psychological trauma due to financial stress.
An incident suggesting the same happened just before his suicide. On Sunday, he called up Binuraj, Sultan Bathery unit secretary of Private Bus Owners’ Association. Rajamani informed him that he is going and Binuraj should arrange a wreath. Binuraj who got perplexed by this message conveyed the matter to family members. But before any chance of intervention, Rajamani attempted to end his life.
Private bus sector on the verge of collapse
President of Wayanad Private Bus Operators’ Association PK Haridas shared the harsh realities of COVID hit private bus sector in the district. According to him, Rajamani’s death is a protest against the government's apathy in addressing the issues. He added that Rajamani is a martyr.
“I know him personally. I am saddened and shocked by his death. But I'm worried that many others may attempt to end their lives. Today its Rajamani, the next day it will be some other person. Even before the pandemic, our association extended relief of Rs 2 lakh to him. But even that could not save him. If a person with 32 years of experience in the sector got puddled in the crisis, I'm really worried about others. We are in such a catastrophe,” he said.
Haridas pinpointed that most of the owners are debt-ridden with loans from banks and financiers. The cost of running bus services along with personal needs are making them run behind one loan after another. Many of them want to dispose of their buses but have no other option than to sustain them.
“Especially in Wayanad, most of the owners come from agriculture background and we are not rich or bourgeoisie as referred by some. At times, to run a bus which could generate Rs 3,000 as income in a day we need to spend Rs 10,000.”
Reportedly, the COVID pandemic coincided with the time when 90 percent of operators in Wayanad switched to more fuel-efficient vehicles. They were not regularly running for more than a year due to COVID restrictions.
“The bus workers are telling us to operate the buses. They agree to cut their daily wages. But even with that sacrifice, we end up seeking loans for the payment in fuel stations. I think the scene is similar in all districts of Kerala,” Haridas further explained.
Similarly, Kerala State Private Bus Operators Federation in a statement has accused the Kerala government of its apathy towards the public transport sector. They have demanded the government to provide a relief amount of Rs 25 lakh to Rajamani’s family as compensation.
The operators alleged that despite the multiple attempts to have talks with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, permission was not granted. They added that no proactive measures were taken in support of them, despite the submission of memoranda or direct talks with the transport minister and finance minister.
The operators also pointed out their distress due to the diesel price hike. They noted that in a year diesel rate rose by Rs 31, and for one day’s trip it would cost Rs 2,500 more.
(Suicide is not a solution to any problem. Seek the help of a mental health expert if you are in distress. Toll-free helpline number: 1056)