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Fare freeze but not fair to anyone
Taxis fewer, citizens suffer

Mamata Banerjee has temporarily spared commuters a fare hike and heaped on them the torture of hunting for transport on roads bereft of their regular fleet of buses and taxis.

Calcutta has about 37,000 taxis and almost 12,000 of them have gone off the road, unable to maintain profitability because of a combination of fare stagnation and fuel price hike.

Buses too are fewer, around 7,000 out of the 16,000 already garaged because their owners can’t take the accumulating losses anymore. A typical rush-hour scene on a city road now almost resembles the Fevicol advertisement. Only it isn’t funny.

“Nowadays I have to often walk till Minto Park to find a taxi when I return home from work,” said Supratik Sircar, whose office is almost a kilometre away on Camac Street.

The start of the festival season has made it worse for the commuter. Taxi refusal has always been rampant, especially after sundown in the busier areas of the city such as the office zones and shopping destinations like Esplanade and Gariahat. Now, demanding fares in excess of the metered amount at any time of day is the norm.

“In the past two to three months, I don’t remember approaching a taxi driver who hasn’t asked for extra money. Earlier, they would demand Rs 10 or 20 more at night, now they do so all day,” said Sharanya Ghosh, who teaches English in a north Calcutta college.

Representatives of the taxi unions warn that it could get worse. “More taxis will go off the roads if the fare structure is not revised,” the leader of a Trinamul-backed union said.

The present fuel-fare ratio apparently makes running a taxi unfeasible. “My taxi earns me around Rs 400 a day; sometimes it is Rs 350. Two years ago, my average daily earnings were the same but the price of fuel and other costs were lower,” taxi owner Lalit Kumar Shaw said.

With an average earning of Rs 400 a day after accounting for the driver’s share and fuel costs, a taxi owner ends up with Rs 12,000 a month if his car runs every day. Of that, Rs 2,500 goes into routine maintenance. “I also have to pay Rs 6,925 as EMI. That leaves me with only Rs 2,575,” Shaw said.

While the minimum wage fixed by the state government for eight hours of toil by industrial worker is Rs 162, Shaw makes around Rs 86 a day. The only way to make some more money is to drastically cut down on maintenance and run the taxi day and night.

The price of a litre of diesel has increased by Rs 15.54 since the last time taxi fares were hiked. “The fare structure was last raised in August 2009 when the price of diesel was Rs 35.07. Today, a litre of diesel costs Rs 50.61. You do the math,” said Tarak Nath Bari, the secretary of the Calcutta Taxi Association.

Dwindling profits have led to the average salary of drivers stagnating and reduced their availability. A driver who toils for 12 hours is left with around Rs 100 after paying Rs 400 to the owner and around Rs 700 for fuel. Driving a private or office car would fetch him between Rs 6,000 and Rs 9,000 a month.

A taxi runs about 150km every day, about a fifth of which is without a passenger. Fines for traffic violations also eat into the earnings.

“I can’t take any decision on my own,” is transport minister Madan Mitra’s explanation for sitting on a problem that’s getting worse every day.