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Threat of indefinite bus strike from Monday

Mamata Banerjee walks in a procession in Calcutta on Saturday. (Pradip Sanyal)

Calcutta, Sept. 15: Private bus operators in Bengal have threatened to keep their vehicles off the roads indefinitely from Monday to press for a fare hike following the diesel price rise, prompting the government to call a meeting with them tomorrow.

Minibus operators too are planning a strike from Wednesday. They have given the government 48 hours to decide on their demand for a fare hike. There are nearly 2,500 minibuses in the state.

The bus operators’ threat comes at a time four of the five taxi unions in and around Calcutta have threatened a three-day strike from Thursday on the same issue.

“The Rs 5 hike in the price of each litre of diesel has made it nearly impossible for us to run buses. Only the government can bail us out since it decides on fares. Unfortunately, there seems to be no such effort on the part of the government,” said Sadhan Das of the Joint Council of Bus Syndicate, whose members run around 16,000 buses. “It’s impossible for us to consider anything else but a fare hike.”

Around 25,000 buses in south Bengal and over 6,000 buses and maxi cabs in north Bengal are likely to stay off the roads from Monday.

Late this evening, transport minister Madan Mitra called a meeting with transport operators tomorrow afternoon.

“Our appeal to them will be simple. When the chief minister has given a 72-hour deadline to the Centre to roll back the diesel price hike, as operators you can surely give the government some more time before going on a strike,” Mitra told The Telegraph.

Although the bus operators have agreed to attend the meeting, they have made it clear that fares have to be hiked to offset the increase in the price of diesel. The decision to press for a fare hike was taken at meetings the bus operators held yesterday and today.

A government official said that even if the five surface transport corporations operated to their full strength, it still would not be enough to meet the demand in case the private players went ahead with their threatened strike. The corporations have 5,000 fit-to-ply buses.

Nearly 72 per cent of mass transport by bus in Bengal is dependent on the private sector, transport officials said.

Dipak Sarkar of the Bengal Bus Syndicate said the price of “super diesel”, a variety used by BS III and BS IV buses bought under the National Urban Renewal Mission, had gone up by Rs 19 a litre in the past three years.

“In Calcutta, you can only run BS III and BS IV buses. How can we run these buses if fares are not hiked?” he asked.

According to transport operators, each bus requires around 70-80 litres of diesel every day. “The increase in the price of diesel means our operating costs will shoot up several notches. So fares will have to be hiked considerably,” an operator said.

Abasesh Daw of the Mini Bus Operators’ Association said that even if the Centre agreed to roll back the diesel price hike, “we will continue to press for a rise in fare”.

The last time bus, minibus and taxi fares were hiked in Bengal was September 2009. The minimum bus fare was raised to Rs 4 from Rs 3.

The North Bengal Passenger Transport Owners’ Co-ordination Committee, the apex body of 32 bus owners’ associations, also threatened a strike from Monday demanding a fare hike and road repairs.

Committee secretary Pranab Mani said: “We were forced to call an indefinite strike because operational and maintenance costs are rising thanks to bad roads. The diesel price hike has added to our woes.”

A government official said: “Taxi operators in and around Calcutta have threatened to go on a 72-hour strike from Thursday demanding an increase in the minimum fare from Rs 22 to Rs 32. Now, the bus operators are also threatening a strike. The transport sector will be badly hit next week.”