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Enter, week of commute woe

Three out of every four private buses will be off the road from Monday as two major unions of bus operators launch an “indefinite strike” to press for a fare hike.

The Joint Council of Bus Syndicates and the Bengal Bus Syndicate made their intentions clear by skipping the transport minister’s meeting on Sunday, called in an attempt to persuade the operators not to take any drastic step following the rise in diesel prices.

Together, the two control more than 18,000 of the 25,000 private buses in and around the city.

Minibuses and taxis will run but operators of both have threatened an indefinite strike from September 20.

Madan Mitra expressed helplessness at the turn of events, saying: “What can I do if they don’t turn up?” He promised that government buses would be out in strength but said the full fleet could not be deployed on Monday. “Tomorrow being Vishwakarma Puja, many people are on leave. I can’t ask them to come to work.”

Across the state, the government has only around 5,500 buses that are fit to run. In the city, the figure amounts to only 12 per cent of the entire fleet.

Dipak Sarkar, the secretary of the Bengal Bus Syndicate, said they would not settle for anything less than a fare hike. “We have reached a stage where mere talks no longer matter. The government has to revise the fares.”

Sarkar had earlier said while arguing for a rise in fares that the price of “super diesel”, a variety used by BS III and BS IV buses bought under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, had gone up by Rs 19 a litre over the past three years. Each bus needs 70-80 litres a day. “In Calcutta, only BS III and BS IV buses ply. They cannot run if the fares are not hiked,” he had said. Bus fares were last raised in 2009.

The two unions spearheading the strike were once controlled by the Left but are now known to be pro-Trinamul. A key functionary of the Bengal Bus Syndicate is Trinamul MLA Swarnakamal Saha.

Even the transporters who did turn up for the meeting at Netaji Indoor Stadium refused to bat for minister Mitra. As requested by the government, they agreed to wait a few more days but made it clear that they would not accept anything other than a fare hike.

“If the government’s stand on fare hike is so rigid, we would have no option but to go on an indefinite protest. We are co-operating with them... but we want a revision of fares,” said Abashesh Daw, the secretary of the Minibus Operators’ Coordination Committee, which controls 2,500 minibuses in and around Calcutta.

When Metro asked Mitra whether the government would give in to the demand for a fare hike if the Centre does not roll back the rise in diesel price, he said: “We should not go into ifs and buts. Pre-natal sex determination is banned!”