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Talks fail, fuel crunch bites

Calcutta/New Delhi, Jan. 29: Bengal was tonight perched dangerously close to the brink of an oil crisis as striking tanker operators locked horns with oil companies and both refused to budge.

This afternoon’s talks ran their full course with transport minister Subhas Chakraborty playing referee but ultimately came to nought, forcing the state government to look to the Centre to resolve the five-day impasse.

Both sides laid the blame at the other’s door as harried commuters in Calcutta and adjoining areas queued up for buses and taxis that took long to come by. Only 40 per cent of 8,000 buses as well as 35,000 taxis were able to ply today.

“We are disappointed that oil companies have not entertained our demand. We are not satisfied with their offer,” Ajit Das, general secretary of the West Bengal Oil Tankers’ Association, said.

The two sides are fighting it out over the tanker hiring charges offered by the oil companies. The tankers’ association is unhappy with the Rs 111.77 per kilolitre per km rate it is being paid in Calcutta, although it is the highest in the country. (See chart)

“We want the rate to be raised to Rs 130 per kilolitre per km and the transport minister has backed our demand. But the oil companies have offered us only Rs 122.67 per kilolitre per km,” Das said.

Chakraborty appeared to be one with Das. “The companies are being very adamant…. They haven’t displayed any real interest in getting the transport system running,” he said, hinting that worse times appeared in store for the man on the street.

The oil companies, however, insisted that they could not change the rules for a set of operators who were already being paid more than others.

“There are rules and procedures for tendering in the public sector and a tender committee decides the rates. We cannot just agree to the demands since it will have nationwide repercussions,” said Gautam Dutta, general manager of Indian Oil Corporation Ltd and state level co-ordinator of public sector oil companies.

He added that the oil companies had already shown flexibility by agreeing to raise the rates from Rs 111.77 to Rs 122.67.

Indian Oil Corporation chairman Sarthak Behuria said in New Delhi that open tenders had been invited for tanker rates in Calcutta and Bengal and oil companies had agreed to pay according to the lowest bids. But the tanker operators were now demanding more.

As the oil cauldron boiled, bus and taxi unions held out a grim picture. “If no resolution is arrived at soon, the number of taxis plying will drop to about 10 per cent tomorrow,” a Bengal Taxi Association official said.

Chakraborty, too, sounded a warning. “We will run buses till our stocks last. State bus depots have reserves to run buses till tomorrow evening.”

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