Autos with extra passengers in Salt Lake and (right) auto stand on the main road at Airport gate no. 1. Pictures by Bhubaneswarananda Halder
An auto carrying six passengers drives past a traffic policeman near Karunamoyee in Salt Lake without the cop so much as giving the overloaded vehicle a second look, concentrating instead on polishing his aviator sunglasses.
Extra passengers, driving through the wrong lane, jumping traffic signals — auto drivers on the northern fringes of the city are back to their unlawful ways with officers of the Bidhannagar and Barrackpore commissionerates allegedly asked to suspend the crackdown on errant vehicles in fear of protests.
Reining in auto drivers to ensure smooth traffic and road safety had been a top priority for the two commissionerates that took charge on January 20. Auto operators, most of them backed by the Trinamul Congress, hit the streets for several days in April to demand immunity from police action and protest the hike in LPG price, allegedly prompting “verbal instructions” from senior police officers to go slow on the crackdown.
“Reining in auto drivers had topped our priority list when we took charge of the area. We had started imposing fines on auto drivers every time they were found violating traffic norms. However, the drivers began a series of demonstrations in April and we were asked to suspend all action till a meeting was held between the operators and the transport minister,” said a traffic department officer of the Bidhannagar Commissionerate. “The meeting failed to resolve the demands of auto drivers and since then we haven’t received any order to resume crackdown.”
The transport minister had set up a committee to decide on fares, routes and the number of passengers each auto can ferry but the committee is yet to submit a report or place its recommendations even after two months.
Auto drivers have seized the opportunity to rule the roads. “The police have allowed us to take an extra passenger to the driver’s left. However, if there is a passenger for a short distance, we do take him on the driver’s right side too. The cops do not book us these days,” said an auto driver on the Karunamoyee-Ultadanga route as he starts a journey from the Karunamoyee stand. Auto drivers ferrying more than four people are liable to be fined Rs 3,000.
If auto drivers in Salt Lake flout the permissible passenger count, those at the Dunlop crossing and VIP Road go a step further, driving along the wrong flank and violating traffic signals. “The right flank always remains congested because of vehicles waiting for the traffic light green. Hence we take the wrong lane to reach the auto stand at the Dunlop crossing faster. It also helps passengers when they are in a hurry,” said Rathin Dutta, an auto driver.
Police officers say their hands are tied. “We have orders not to book them even for offences such as speeding, jumping signals or plying on wrong flanks. The moment we start prosecuting, the drivers may resume their agitation,” said a senior officer of the Barrackpore commissionerate.
Police inaction has prompted drivers to shift auto stands back to Airport gate no. 1, Dunlop crossing, Baguiati crossing and Salt Lake City Centre, from where they had been asked to move to nearby arterial roads to avoid traffic snarls.
Minister Madan Mitra, however, denied any slowdown on action against errant auto drivers. “The ministry never issued any order asking the cops to turn a blind eye to traffic violations by auto drivers. I will look into the matter and make sure the cops act tough on rogue drivers,” he said.