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CM shifts fare gear

- Belated revision of transport rates

Calcutta, Oct. 31: The Mamata Banerjee government has green-lighted increases in transport fares, somersaulting to prevent a total collapse of an essential service and acknowledging under duress the impracticality of a no-hike policy.

The new fares (see chart) will come into effect from Thursday and are the first such revisions since August 1, 2009. The changes were announced by commerce and industries minister Partha Chatterjee in his capacity as chairman of the group of ministers on transport.

The announcement came against the backdrop of desperate transporters pulling at least 60 per cent buses and taxis off the roads as operations became unviable in the face of the government’s refusal to allow revisions.

The operators, who had earlier threatened an indefinite strike, today said they were relieved that the government has at least budged from its position, though they were not entirely “happy” with the quantum of the hike. It was not clear if the majority would accept the new rates. (See Metro)

However, the decision does mark a milestone.

This is the first prominent instance of Mamata segregating populism from policy making and accepting that economic logic cannot be wished away forever.

“The pressure to keep the wheels moving was there and mounting,” minister Chatterjee conceded.

But Chatterjee said the decision should not be construed as a hike in fares. “This step was taken for resource mobilisation. We have gone for route rationalisation,” he claimed.

The demand for fare hike has been haunting Mamata from the first month of assuming office after the change of guard in Bengal. Initially, she made it clear that she was vehemently opposed to any hike. Later, she tried to defer — and also distance herself — from the unpleasant decision by setting up a group of ministers.

“Partha-da as the chairman of the group announced the decision but there is little doubt that the chief minister wanted to distance herself from the decision,” said a senior Trinamul leader.

The other members in the group — which was formed to solve the crisis after the transport operators went on strikes and threatened more — were finance minister Amit Mitra, panchayat affairs minister Subrata Mukherjee, power minister Manish Gupta, urban development minister Firhad Hakim and transport minister Madan Mitra.

The clamour of fare hike gained steam since September 14, this year, after the price of diesel was raised by Rs 5.85 a litre. The situation worsened after a further 17-paise increase on Saturday. The price of diesel now is Rs 50.78 a litre, higher by 45 per cent from the Rs 35.03 in August 2009, when the last fare revision kicked in.

The situation had reached such a pass that some bus operators in north Bengal had put up begging boards and charged more — which passengers paid — and others in Purulia had used noxious kerosene to run public transport. In Calcutta, hapless commuters could be seen waiting for buses and taxis on empty streets late in the evening in the past month.

“On some key routes, the number of buses plying had come down to barely 30 per cent, while around 60 per cent taxis had gone off the roads around Puja. The price of fuel made it impossible for the operators to cut losses if the vehicles plied under the existing fare regime,” said a senior bureaucrat.

The fare revision, according to many in the government, could not have come at a better time for the administration that was drawing flak over the mess in the Haldia port.

“Our back was against the wall, frankly. There was no other way out for the government but to go for a hike. The situation was going from bad to worse. Very soon, there would have been a total breakdown of the transport system,” said a senior Trinamul leader.

A cabinet minister conceded that the government should have taken the decision earlier. “The solution was always at hand. Had the government announced this decision before the Pujas, commuters could have availed of substantially better services during the festive days and the operators would have suffered less,” he said.

A pattern also emerged from the dilly-dallying tactics. In the recent past, there have been instances when Mamata waited till the last moment and then quietly allowed what she had been stalling.

Her refusal to allow the state-run power utilities to apply for higher tariffs in view of escalating costs between June and December last year had brought them face to face with projected cash losses of over Rs 2,000 crore.

Since January, when the situation reached a breaking point, she allowed the power utilities to increase tariff through variable cost adjustment on several occasions, besides permitting them to file a tariff petition with the state electricity regulatory commission.

“Although power tariff isn’t under the government’s control, she bullied the state-run utilities for months before allowing them to do the needful. She had seriously endangered the state power sector for the sake of populism till she knew better,” said a power department official this evening.

In the political sphere, her decisions to support Pranab Mukherjee as the presidential candidate and withdraw Trinamul candidates in the GTA elections were also an afterthought.