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Wheels within wheels of rally
Miffed buses send a message

The road-hog rally on Rani Rashmoni Avenue on Monday afternoon was as much a vehicle of protest for bus operators battling a fare freeze as it was a platform for the CPM to regain its voice.

Around 7,000 private buses ferried one lakh Left faithful to the venue of the rally, which many might see as a sign of the wheels rapidly turning against a party that had only recently wrested control of most bus operators’ unions.

Rows of private buses were parked along Central Avenue, SN Banerjee Road, the Metro Channel, Chowringhee Road and Plassey Gate Road, flaunting the red flags and placards whose colour seemed to have faded against the rally skyline after Trinamul roared to power last year.

“This rally showed the level of frustration building up in Bengal over the manner of the government’s functioning. The private transport sector, particularly the bus business, is in bad shape,” said CPM leader Amitava Nandi. “We needed transport for the rally and the bus owners were glad to offer their services, which says how they feel about fares stagnating and the price of diesel rising.”

If the bus owners’ participation in the rally weren’t a warning already, the Joint Council of Bus Syndicates has threatened to take buses off the road from October 9.

The government had promised to let taxi operators know its stand on a fare hike by October 8. “It is not possible for us to operate with such losses. Bus owners have already started withdrawing from several routes and will do so from the rest if the government doesn’t hike fares by October 9,” said Tapan Banerjee, a leader of the joint council.

Banerjee accused transport minister Madan Mitra of buying time despite knowing that he couldn’t take a decision on his own. “We have had several talks with the transport minister. It appears that increasing bus fares is beyond him. He has to talk to several others before taking a call. We can’t wait so long,” he said.

When the Left had last organised a rally at the Brigade on February 19, CPM leaders had struggled to convince bus operators to ferry supporters to and from the venue.

“Bus owners and their employees are back on our side. We hired buses at a nominal rate of around Rs 2,200 a vehicle. That’s a big discount considering the distance from Barrackpore (about 22km from Esplanade) or Kamarhati (16km),” said Subhas Mukherjee, a Citu leader from North 24-Parganas overseeing the party organisation in the private bus sector.

Trinamul insisted that money, not the CPM, worked its magic. “It is obvious that the CPM has spent lakhs of rupees on hiring the buses,” said Nirmal Ghosh, the party’s North 24-Parganas president.

Since the latest hike in diesel price by Rs 5 a litre, transport operators have been pressuring the government for a hike in bus fares. The Mamata Banerjee government, which believes in status quo whether it is a fuel-price hike or a bus fare raise, has so far resisted a revision.

The last time bus fares were raised in Bengal was in August 2009. Since then, the price of diesel has risen by Rs 15 a litre.

On September 19, a day ahead of the Left-called bandh against the fuel price hike, transport minister Mitra had managed to prevail over private bus operators to withdraw their indefinite strike by promising a decision within 10 days.

On September 29, at a meeting with members of the joint council, he sought more time and requested them not to go on strike. The bus operators, at least the majority from North 24-Parganas, are unwilling to wait any longer.

Around 8,000 buses travel to Calcutta daily from North 24-Parganas. In terms of strength, the CPM’s labour arm Citu and Trinamul are neck and neck in the district. But the ruling party is said to have more clout overall, controlling the more important bus routes closer to the city.

Monday might have forced a rethink on the power equation in the bus business.