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North-south divide in bus blow

- Autos cash in on commuter woe on day one of strike

The way commuters coped with the private bus strike on Monday highlighted the north-south divide in Calcutta’s transport system.

While people in south Calcutta had options in the form of government buses, minibuses, autos and taxis, those in north Calcutta had to jostle for space in the few vehicles that were available or submit to the greed of the auto driver out to make the extra buck and more.

Autos charged double or treble the fares on many routes in the north, the spike prompting harassed commuters at the busy Ultadanga junction to stage an impromptu protest against their “highhandedness”.

The roadblock brought a team from Ultadanga police station, which forced the auto drivers to resume ferrying passengers to and from Salt Lake and along the VIP Road stretch till Baguiati.

“This is blackmail. They are taking advantage of our helplessness,” said Pallabi Ghosh, a primary school teacher headed for Salt Lake.

The Baruipur resident had taken the Metro to Sovabazar and then a bus to reach Ultadanga. She was stranded at the junction for over 45 minutes. “The autos are parked but they won’t go. They have a bunch of excuses to fleece us passengers,” Pallabi fumed.

Monday’s excuse was the absence of three-fourth of the 25,000 buses that ply on a normal day.

Transport department officials said north Calcutta getting the short shrift was the legacy of the erstwhile Left Front government, which twisted routes to benefit a section of private bus and auto operators.

Many living in north Calcutta recalled how government buses would provide seamless connectivity across all routes until 15 years ago. “There used to be a state bus route connecting Bangur with Esplanade via Maniktala, Ultadanga and Lake Town. Another bus used to originate in Lake Town and go till Esplanade. But these buses were discontinued,” said retired bank official Bhaskar Ghosh.

Another route that died an induced death was Baranagar-Kudghat.

In south Calcutta, autos, minibuses and a high concentration of taxis saved the day for commuters. Dhakuria resident Arnab Guha was bracing for a shortage of transport options to reach Kalighat Metro station but was pleasantly surprised to find a cab at his door.

He wasn’t the exception. Across the south, the contrast with the scarcity of transport in the north was stark.

“On a given day, there are at least 20 per cent more taxis in south Calcutta than in the north,” said Bimal Guha, president of the Bengal Taxi Association. “Taxi drivers know from experience that they are more likely to get passengers who travel longer distances in the south than in the north. Moreover, the roads are broader there.”

Unlike the autos of north Calcutta, those in the south had apparently acted on “instructions” from their unions to ply as usual. “This is Mamata Banerjee’s backyard, after all,” said a union leader.

Bus operators said they would continue the strike. “The price of diesel has increased nine times since the last fare revision in 2009,” pointed out Dipak Sarkar of the Bengal Bus Syndicate.

Transport minister Madan Mitra said he couldn’t say when fares would be raised. “The government will take a decision. I only look after the transport department,” he added.