Mamata at an event in Netaji Indoor Stadium on Thursday. Picture by Pradip Sanyal
Calcutta, July 26: The administrator in Mamata Banerjee is headed for a showdown with Citu over a transport strike next Tuesday.
The CPM’s labour arm today called its transport strike on July 31, the day bus operators had already threatened to pull out vehicles to press for a hike in fares. Citu, which is opposed to increasing fares, has called the strike to oppose the fuel price hike and push for state subsidy for the transport sector.
The strike is expected to cover government and private buses, taxis, auto-rickshaws and lorries.
While the CPM and Citu are expected to use the chance to claw back some of the ground lost among transport workers, the chief minister appeared to be viewing it as an opportunity to showcase her commitment to governance.
Mamata has threatened to not only cancel the licences of buses that stay off the roads on Tuesday but also withdraw subsidies to state-run transport corporations with “employees who do not care to do their work”. Even if the threats are not carried out eventually, the statements are quite radical for a politician inextricably associated with populism.
Citu leaders took care to explain that they were against any fare hike. “Petrol and diesel prices have been raised. Transport costs would rise immensely and force operators not to ply their vehicles. That would affect transport workers. That’s why we have decided to call the July 31 strike,” said Shyamal Chakraborty, state Citu president and CPM MP.
Within an hour of Chakraborty’s announcement, Mamata told an unscheduled news conference that she would go all the way to foil the strike and iterated her government was against any disruptive activities like strikes.
“Our government is absolutely against the politics of strikes and road blockades. We will keep a watch on those who do not take their buses out on that day. We have the right to cancel their permits and licences. I advise them not to do anything that forces us to take those steps,” the chief minister said.
This is the second time that Mamata has decided to go all-out against disruptive politics, seen as a legacy of the Left that she also adopted but shunned when the mood changed in the state. For the past few years, Mamata has stuck to her pledge not to call bandhs.
Ahead of the February 28 general strike, she had threatened to invoke a “break-in-service” clause on government employees who skipped work. Mamata scored a victory that day as attendance was over 80 per cent at Writers’ and other government offices across the state.
Repeating the achievement on July 31, however, will be easier said than done as the government has direct control over only 18,000 employees of the state-owned transport units, while lakhs are hired by private operators.
“Citu still has a strong presence among workers in the transport sector,” said a state official.
The chief minister referred to the economic cost. “We do not support strikes or shutdowns because they lead to loss of mandays and hit the state’s economy, which is already in a pretty bad shape. The state government loses Rs 30 crore approximately in every strike…. Bandhs have never solved any problem,” she said.
Mamata did refer to her Nandigram and Singur protests but admitted that she had learnt the “futility” of disruptive politics and said that was why her party had “mended” its ways.
Citu appeared to be smelling blood in the showdown, the profile of which has been raised by Mamata’s assertive intervention. Citu leaders said they would campaign extensively over the next few days to ensure a total shutdown in the transport sector on July 31.
“Our demand is that the state government should give subsidy to the transport sector to offset the rise in operating costs because of the fuel price hike,’’ Chakraborty said.
Since the last bus fare hike on August 1, 2009, the price of diesel, the fuel public transport uses, has gone up by Rs 6.93 a litre. In contrast, the petrol price has been hiked by Rs 24.98 a litre.
Chakraborty said the successive hikes in fuel prices had thrown the operational economics of various modes of transport — government and private buses, lorries, taxis and auto-rickshaws — haywire and those involved in the sector would spontaneously join the strike.
Although the new government had initially decided to phase out subsidies to five transport corporations, no formal decision has been taken yet.
With Citu upping the ante, Mamata said the cash-strapped state government was “not bound to” pay an annual subsidy of Rs 600 crore to the ailing transport corporations.
“Why should we bear the burden of doling out such a huge amount of subsidy for employees who do not care to do their work?” asked Mamata.
“We will stop providing subsidies to the corporations and we will use the amount to buy new buses or spend it on things that will help the common people in the long run,” she added.