Public transport is supposed to ease the battle of life. In Calcutta, buses and autorickshaws — supported and protected by the State — make that battle more fierce and lethal. Decades ago, the metro brought pride and hope to the city. But, dangerously coming apart over the years owing to lack of maintenance and expansion, the metro, too, has become part of the bad and the bleak in the city. So, Calcuttans must live with the unmodern and undemocratic feeling of being left with no life-enabling options in their everyday negotiations with the city. A Calcutta couple’s recent brush with the autorickshaw subculture has brought to public notice yet again the violence and anarchy with which the city has to put up daily. The misrule of the autos operates at various levels and goes to the essence of what is wrong with the city’s civic and political foundations. First, traffic rules and etiquette do not exist for the drivers of these vehicles. Second, the drivers and their employers feel no obligation to obey the legal norms meant to control air and noise pollution. Third, in collective terms, the entire system involving the autos wields a kind of political clout that keeps the police in a state of frightened passiveness or collusion with their unruly brazenness. This results in commuters being caught in situations of helplessness or terror in a city where passers-by are becoming increasingly self-preserving about helping fellow-citizens who are in distress in public spaces.
The ordinary citizen’s problem with trying to make any concerted civic, and civil, effort to tackle this problem lies in their dependence on a system that appears to be designed for their peril in the absence of other, safer and more civilized, modes of transport in certain sectors. The autos rule, not only because they have the support of the police and of political leaders, but also because most commuters cannot do without them (or they think they cannot do without them). This, together with their rapidly growing numbers, makes it difficult to outlaw them altogether. So, the only way of letting them exist, without paralysing movement in the city and infusing life with unacceptable levels of danger and violence, is to transform the behaviour and ethics of the drivers fundamentally, in the way that Delhi seems to have succeeded with its autos. To pull such a thing off in Calcutta, its entire civic and political culture has to change — a change that seems to have nothing to do with regime change.